In part III (and the last) of our Lakers’ team building series, we will look at the option I like to call the middle road. If the first option is the slow rebuild and the second option is to try to contend right away, the next logical step is to find something which satisfies both while not going too far in either direction.
The Lakers are uniquely positioned to take this path, too. Now that they have secured the #2 overall pick in the upcoming draft — to go along with the #28 pick they got from Houston — while still possessing 6 players they’ve drafted over the past 3 years in contributing roles, the team has a blend of assets and enough cap space to be players in either the FA or trade market. What we’ll do below, then, is explore what this option might look like and how the front office may go about executing such a plan.
The Case for the Middle Road
At some point, you have to make the jump from lottery fodder to something more substantive. The Lakers are coming off four seasons of missing the playoffs. And while the fruits of those losses are currently developing on this roster (or, in the case of this year’s pick, will soon be), solely depending the internal growth of those players to elevate the roster to the next level is not the only option. And it may not even be the most prudent.
Young players are the easiest the rally behind and see the good in. They are bundle of potential and tools and flashes of what their peak will eventually look like. Things they’re not good at now can be improved on and the things they are good at now will just get better and better. At least, that’s often the approach we take.
We know that’s not true, though. Some players never really improve their weaknesses to reasonable levels. Some young players rest on the strength of what they do well, never really growing their game or turning their plus-potential in a given area into sustained excellence. Some get injured. And some never turn the corner and, ultimately, bust.
Let me state up-front I believe in the talent of the Lakers’ young guys. But hedging against them reaching their full potential by trying to bolster the roster with a star player now isn’t some sort of knock on that belief. Smart teams are constantly trying to improve their roster; to bring in top talent that can supplement what you have in place and, if needed, take the mantle as the team’s best player in order to help raise the level of play from everyone.
Further, when constructing a roster, I am a firm believer in the idea of properly slotting players into best fitting roles and responsibilities to optimize their play (and, in young players, their growth and development). A perfect example of this was when the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol in 2008. Pau went from a #1 option to the #2 in LA which then slid Odom from a #2 option to a #3 or #4 option (depending on how you felt about Andrew Bynum), which helped maximize both players, leading to deep playoff runs.
In discussing this idea with Reed, he made the same point regarding how adding a star player (Paul George was his example) could work the same way for the young players:
Adding a star now, when the core is so young, may slot them into more natural roles/responsibilities, allowing them to develop with less pressure. Think about how SA was able to develop Kawhi, slowly increasing his offensive usage/responsibility year by year as he was ready. This put him in a position to succeed, and avoided media scrutiny that comes during spotlighted growing pains. And none of the core are probably ready yet to be the primary go to scorers/creators, even with someone like Lonzo (potentially) joining them.
Russell is quickly becoming a fantastic scorer and playmaker, Ingram showed strides in the second half, and Randle has stretches where he dominates. But having them serve as secondary options to a Paul George type could put them in more favorable matchups/positions within the offense. And this may be especially true given the skill sets of the team’s core players. Russell and Lonzo are visionary passers, but great passing needs great finishers to really work, which has been lacking to this point. Even Randle and Ingram are great passers in their own ways (Randle more as a Lamar Odom semi-transition creator, and Ingram as a decisive quick ball mover). Having an elite scorer (like George) on the court would help maximize those gifts, and tilt the defense away from Russell/Ingram, providing more favorable matchups for them to get reps and develop.
Lastly, I think we can all agree that if the goal is to one day be a championship team, the Lakers need elite talent. Lots of it. Betting on Russell, Ingram, Randle, or whoever gets drafted at #2 can be argued to death by smart people as wise or not. But, I think all would agree that even if all those guys reach their ceilings (or come close), having great players beyond them isn’t just a nice thing to have, it’s a necessity. Look at the Cavs and the Warriors in the Finals. Look at the level of play they exhibited to get to this point. Now contrast that to what the Lakers have — even if forecasting things out 3-4 years. I think it’s pretty clear the Lakers will need more.
Building on this point, it’s pretty clear that star players want to play with guys who they see as peers. Getting one of those elite level players sooner than later allows the Lakers to set the foundation for acquiring more of these types down the line. Said another way, you have to start somewhere and while you can always look at the young guys on the team and hope they reach that point, we all know nothing is a given. Getting a star on board sets the stage and could be a boon in attracting additional high level players in future seasons.
Executing the Plan
Before we can discuss the execution, I think it’s important to note that there is no single option for going this route. As Reed explains below, there are different variations of what this might look like:
There are a few possible variations, based on timing and what opportunities present themselves:
- Trading for a star this summer (George, Butler) plus using cap room to add a second star this summer (Hayward, Griffin)
- Trading for a star this summer (George, Butler) and reserving cap room for next summer (Cousins, Westbrook, Jordan, Isaiah)
- Signing a free agent star this summer (Hayward, Griffin) and avoiding trading the core now; target another star in 18 FA (George, Westbrook, Cousins, Jordan, Isaiah)
- Be patient for one year; try to sign a star in 18 (George, Cousins, Westbrook), and perhaps another then or in 19 (Butler, Klay, Wall), or 20 (Davis, Kyrie, Harden, Drummond)
I think the basic concept is to find a way to add a foundational star to the young core either this or next summer, and then look to add a second star as soon as possible, based on how the roster is shaping up (with internal core development etc).
Let’s group similar ideas and speak to each one.
First, any trade for a star player is going to depend on a variety of factors, but I think determining who to specifically target is the first step. The clear favorite in the clubhouse, I think, would be Paul George. George would, in theory, require the least amount of ammunition to obtain due to his rumored preference to come to the Lakers in free agency in the summer of ’18 and how that might impact the offers the Pacers receive and their asking price. History tells us the longer it goes with George on the roster, the less leverage the Pacers have in a deal as he approaches the summer he can leave without any compensation returning.
As noted in our “win now” post, if I am running the Lakers all of the above impacts what I am willing to offer. As it stands, a list of assets, ranked in ascending order of what I believe would be the preference by other teams, would be:
- 2017 #2 pick
- D’Angelo Russell
- Julius Randle
- Larry Nance
- Jordan Clarkson
- Iviza Zubac
- 2017 #28 Pick
Of that list, I would guess the Lakers view Ingram and the #2 pick on one tier, Russell and Randle on the next tier down, and the rest of the group on the tier under that. If I’m the Lakers, the top tier is not getting traded at all. And, in fact, I would prefer not to deal either Russell or Randle either. That leaves the bottom tier of Clarkson, Nance, Zubac, and the 28th pick. I would feel comfortable trading two of those four, with my order of preference to make available in a trade being Clarkson, #28, Nance, then Zubac.
With that, if a package of Clarkson, Nance, and filler (Brewer’s contract works to make the trade legal) got the job done, I’d jump at that. This is also a comically lowball offer that the Pacers should never even consider. Even if throwing in the #28 pick with Nance/Clarkson, the Pacers should not bite. But that would be as high as I would go. Again, the Lakers are in a position to wait this out because even if they lose out on George via the trade market, they could always try to chase him in the summer of 2018.
Regarding chasing a star FA this summer, there are several options who qualify from a name + skill level standpoint, but a further exploration of fit — be it because of age, position, or other factors — starts to whittle candidates down.
For example, I could make a case for chasing Blake Griffin or even Chris Paul, but neither offers the type of short and long term impact the team should want with a major signing this summer. Both would also likely require a further revamp of the surrounding roster, ultimately leading to a team which ended up more in a “win-now” mode than preferred for the path we’re exploring here. This is especially true with Paul, but even with Griffin, he’d immediately slide into the starting PF role which leaves the Lakers having to move off of Randle and, potentially, limit the minutes Ingram might get at that spot too.
This leaves the best FA target as Gordon Hayward. Should the Lakers be serious about finding a viable all-star level player this summer who checks off all the major boxes, Hayward is the lone guy who really works. He’s only 26, was an all-star this season, can play either wing position, is a very good defensive player, can be a primary scorer on a really good team, and plays a style which is conducive to how Luke Walton wants his team to play. Whether the Lakers could get Hayward is a whole other story, but he’s the exact player the front office should be targeting if jumpstarting things this summer is a real goal.
Of course, the more prudent approach might still be to wait just one more summer to try to get that key star (or, potentially, two of them). The summer of 2018 has a slew of potential FA’s and if the Lakers play their cards right, they could have/could create the needed cap space to flirt with signing two of them. We already mentioned George, but DeMarcus Cousins, Russell Westbrook, and DeAndre Jordan (among others) could all hit the market next summer. In an ideal world, the Lakers could use this next season as a building block/growth year for all their young players and then look to FA in the summer to grab the star(s) that could accelerate their rebuild into hyperdrive.
This may require using a young player or two to dump bad contracts or using the stretch exception to generate space. But, if the Lakers roll over this summer’s cap space to 2018 and then create more through various moves while leveraging Julius Randle’s bird rights to hang onto him, they could end up with a roster of two big name players, Russell, Ingram, this year’s #2 pick (Ball?), and maybe even Randle as the basis of a team that can play and grow together for at least another half decade. By the end of that time frame, the hope would be they’d be ready to make deep playoff runs every season and be in a position to be one of the handful of teams considered true contenders for the championship.
If nothing else, simply writing out the mechanisms of what finding a middle ground would look like steers me more towards targeting 2018 as the first possible year for the Lakers to really make a splash with any big name player acquisition. The likelihood of being able to make a trade this summer without surrendering assets from the top two tiers of the team’s cache is slim. Plus, spending in FA this summer, while fine in theory, is just so unlikely due to the current position of the team’s core and how much proving they still need to do as players.
Further, I’m of the mind that the Lakers do need to continue to nurture their talent and get more information on just how likely they are to approach their ceilings as players. Magic and Pelinka have already laid down the gauntlet for this summer, outright stating their expectation that the young guys come back improved as players and in much better shape. For me, the best plan is to allow them to play that out into the season in order to let them grow and to be able to evaluate them heading into what is likely a crucial 2018 summer.
Make no mistake, I want the Lakers to improve next season. And not by just a handful or two of games. Pushing for a playoff seed — or even getting in — would be a major step that allows the young players to get some much needed experience by playing in meaningful regular season games down the stretch of the year. But, when weighing all of the options for this summer, I just cannot find a viable path to a star player that does not cut into the team’s talent base too much or potentially limit the potential growth of a key player or two along the way to the larger team improvement.
Overall, then, while I could certainly get behind using this middle road to get the Lakers back on the path to being a contending team, I think it needs to wait at least one summer. Realistically, it may be even two summers. I don’t know if that’s something fans could truly get behind, but now that the team is starting to hoard some good young players, I would lean more towards patience than the alternative.