When the NBA postseason begins, the Los Angeles Lakers won’t be included for only the fifth time in 60 years.
This frustrating season has been a anomaly for the Lakers. Kobe Bryant, the Lakers' longtime centerpiece, has missed all but six games the past year, missing nearly as many games this season (76) as his previous 16 seasons combined (107).
The Lakers won’t have an All-NBA selection for the first time since 1996, will be in the NBA Lottery for only the fourth time in 25 years, and are poised for their worst win percentage (.333) since relocating to Los Angeles in 1959.
Discussing a franchise’s ineptitude has become a delicate subject due to the concerns over tanking, but some situations are more promising than others.
So, underneath the wreckage of this broken season, there are nuggets of optimism waiting to be mined, affording the Lakers a chance for a new beginning.
Playing the Lotto
Since 1979, the Lakers have made five top-12 picks (Magic Johnson, James Worthy, George Lynch, Eddie Jones and Andrew Bynum), with four (all except Lynch) becoming All-Stars.
Since 2007, the Lakers last two first round picks (Jordan Farmar, Javaris Crittenton) haven’t been as promising. Farmar has played on two Lakers championship teams but contributed mainly as a role player, with Crittenton being moved to the Memphis Grizzlies in the Pau Gasol trade and having off-court issues in the subsequent years.
The Lakers haven't exactly hit in the second round either.
Despite this recent stretch of underwhelming drafting, the Lakers’ upcoming lottery pick offers potential.
Since 2007, 13 top-ten picks became All-Stars within five seasons, combining for 34 total appearances. The highly-acclaimed 2014 draft class, featuring Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, could allot the Lakers a new franchise centerpiece, whether they select perimeter excellence (Wiggins, Parker), a post presence (Julius Randle, Joel Embiid), or another promising prospect.
For years, the Lakers have sorely lacked youth and athleticism, making their potential top-6 pick and $36 million in cap space all the more alluring.
D’Antoni Doing Work
Since leaving the Phoenix Suns, Mike D'Antoni has endured draining seasons with the Knicks and Lakers.
Despite his 184-245 record since leaving the Suns, D’Antoni offers credibility as the overseer of the Lakers’ rebuilding project.
Before winning Coach of the Year in 2005, D’Antoni became the Suns’ coach the season before, finishing 21-40. One then-underrated Steve Nash signing and several shrew role player additions later, D’Antoni averaged 57 wins over four seasons.
Of course, many expected the same results when D’Antoni took over the Lakers, but the roster, cohesion and direction have allotted no such opportunity. Perhaps these mitigating circumstances have been why the Buss family have stood behind him.
Namely, Dwight Howard’s lone, dramatic Laker campaign and exit left D’Antoni with a limited roster headlined by the aging and rehabbing Bryant, who attested to D’Antoni’s troubled tenure, recently saying, “the two years he’s been here, he’s dealt with so many injuries. He hasn’t gotten a fair shake.”
Indeed, D’Antoni has his flaws -- stubbornness being chief among them -- but he’s succeeded when granted the resources, and a starting lineup headlined by Jodie Meeks doesn’t entail that. Given the proper tools, we’ll more aptly gauge D’Antoni’s place as Lakers coach, but only then.
An Opportunity to Move On
Nothing is more nostalgic than letting go, especially in sports.
That being said, the Lakers must accept Bryant as their best player no longer guarantees a playoff spot let alone a championship contender, nor does taking a rumored shortcut (with superstar free-agents). The NBA is different now, centered on financial prudence, niche players and remarkable cohesion more than ever.
To return to NBA prominence, the Lakers must balance between creating headlines and crafting culture, practicing patience. Losing is never ideal, but it’s sometimes necessary, especially when the other option is middling in mediocrity. Among the Western Conference’s top eight teams, five of them (the Clippers, Rockets, Warriors, Blazers and Grizzlies) endured playoff droughts of three-plus seasons since the Lakers last missed the postseason (2005).
Landing a superstar free agent is ideal, but Bryant’s $48 million extension hinders any hope for a balanced roster with a max-level teammate. Bryant wants another championship, but the Lakers’ priority should be long-term security.
With a likely top-6 pick and an ever-competitive Western Conference, the Lakers must adjust to their reality: they’re rebuilding. But their resources and history will allot a chance to eventually return among the NBA elite, eventually restoring their storied luster.