We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season. Today:
Will Lakers management be patient while rebuilding with youth?
As he was doing interviews before being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame last weekend, former Laker and current TNT analyst Shaquille O’Neal summed up what many people believe about the post-Kobe Lakers this season:
“They’re definitely going to be exciting, but I don’t see them being a contender for a while. I mean, they’ve still got to go up against Golden State in the West, they’ve got to go up against OKC, still got to go up against Cleveland, the Rockets. So they have a long way to go to be a contender.Every now and then they’ll make some noise and get the people in the Staples Center excited.”
The Lakers have a young core with a lot of promise. D'Angelo Russell will take a step forward next season off a rookie campaign where he averaged 13.2 points per game and 3.3 assists per game, shot 35.1 percent from three, and had a PER of 13.2. More importantly, he improved over the course of the season — his PER for the month of February was 18.8.
Russell played in Summer League last July in large part to develop chemistry with Brandon Ingram, the Lakers new No. 2 pick. The lanky forward flashed the skills — good handles, face-up shooting game, smooth stroke — that intrigued the Lakers and made him the clear choice for them in the draft. He just needs to polish those skills and get stronger.
Then there is Jordan Clarkson, the combo guard playing the two who is working on the skills to play that role (he needs a more consistent jumper, for example). He gives the Lakers another ball handler and options for initiating the offense. After him, the Lakers have Larry Nance Jr. — a guy other coaches regularly bring up when talking about the Lakers’ core — and Julius Randle, two quality young forwards who have shown flashes of potential. Randle, in particular, has the athleticism to be a quality four in the NBA if he can develop his shot and his off-hand.
Put them all together with a young coach who the young players relate to and who wants to play up-tempo in Luke Walton, and there is real potential. The Lakers have hope for the future. It’s going to take a couple of years to develop into the kind of foundational core that will win enough games to think playoffs — and, more importantly, lure top free agents — but you can see that path in front of the Lakers. A good goal for the Lakers this season is to win more than 30 games, which is a leap from the franchise low of 17 a year ago. Then in two seasons they be in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the West. It’s like what happened in Boston, where it took a few years for their solid young core and quality coach to win enough that a free agent such as Al Horford would jump on board.
The Lakers just need to be patient and let the players develop.
The question is will Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak let that happen?
Remember that Jim Buss, the man his father left in charge of the basketball side of the Lakers’ franchise, said back in 2014 he would have the Lakers back to “contending” in three or four seasons or he would step down. Contending has come to mean at least getting into the second round. There is some disagreement about exactly when Jim Buss’ deadline falls, but the other Buss siblings have reportedly lost faith in his ability to do the job and are pushing for a change sooner rather than later.
The fear is that push forces Buss to make decisions thinking only about wins and the short term. He wouldn’t be the first NBA executive to make poor long-term decisions to save his job in the short run.
Buss seemed to think rebuilding the Lakers would be easier and quicker than it is, that free agents would just flock to the team because of the brand and because of the city. That’s not the way the modern NBA works. The reality was clear this summer: The Lakers couldn’t even get a courtesy meeting with free agent Kevin Durant. The age of social media and the current NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement have changed the dynamic for big market teams, lessening their advantages with free agents. The Lakers can’t just skim off the cream of the crop and rebuild on the fly anymore. Players will go where the money is regardless of market, and they will go where they will win.
The Lakers are a few years away from being one of those teams.
There are multiple pressures on the Lakers to win sooner rather than later. There is Jim Buss’ deadline — he’d like to keep his job, but that means winning. There is the pressure to fill the seats on game nights and keep team sponsors in a post-Kobe Bryant era. And there are the local television ratings, which have slipped the past couple of seasons — and part of that massive Lakers’ rights deal with Time Warner Cable is ratings based (as ratings slip, the Lakers get less money).
On top of all that Lakers fans, spoiled by decades of success, are not always the most patient and understanding of fan bases. To put it kindly.
Could all of those pressures lead to rash decisions? Trades that short circuit the future in hopes of a few more wins now?
But not likely.
Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak are Lakers’ lifers — even if Buss gave up his power he’d still have a large ownership stake in the team — and they certainly see the potential for these Lakers. They are smart, they see the path in front of the team, and they know that the climb to the top is gradual. Of course, if a “Godfather” trade falls in their lap (one they can’t refuse) then they take it, but that is highly unlikely in today’s NBA climate. Maybe some big names become available later this season or into next summer, but the Lakers shouldn’t give away too much of a promising young core to get a DeMarcus Cousins (not currently available) or someone of that ilk. It’s that young core that would make a top player want to stay with the Lakers in the first place, or for a free agent to come to L.A.
The Lakers are on a path that could lead to a return to the upper echelons of the NBA, but it’s going to take years. It’s going to take patience, both from fans and management. They can’t let a combination of pride and pressure force them off that path for a quick fix and a couple of extra wins.
That is the path to long-term mediocrity.