Sunday, February 9, 2014

State of the West: Los Angeles Lakers

For the next month or so, Hack-a-Shaq will be having these State of the West posts, which will be about the current and future state of each of the Western Conference teams. It will include some guest writers for certain teams and I'm really excited to see how this turns out. Enjoy!

I am a patient fan. I recognize all that this franchise has done during my lifetime to help make my fan experience one of the best ones in the world. It's not easy to win the Finals five times, appear in the Finals seven times and only miss the playoffs twice during the 19 years I have been alive. It's not easy to reach the top of the mountain once, let alone the 16 times this team has done it during their history, not to mention the 31 times they have made the Finals. This is one of the most storied franchises of all time between all sports and it brings me great pain to see them put up a team that is this bad. Granted, a lot of these poor performances can be traced back to the team's horrendous injury bug; they've been so injured that they played against the Cleveland Cavaliers with only 8 active players, leading to two of them getting hurt (of course) and two of them fouling out, which led to the NBA using an old rule that allowed Robert Sacre to stay in the game at the expense of an extra technical foul shot for Cleveland every time Sacre fouled somebody. The Lakers, somehow, still won that game, which may not be a good thing.

The fact that half of Lakers fans are rooting against their team every night is telling; in the past, wins were sweet and beloved by all Lakers fans everywhere. But, it is virtually impossible for this team to make the playoffs in the brutal Western Conference, let alone advance should they get there. At this stage, the only thing wins are doing is keeping the Lakers further away from a potential Top-5 draft pick in what is supposed to be the most talented draft since the 2003 NBA draft. And, if we're being entirely honest, even a fully healthy Lakers squad wasn't going to advance in the West. Let's look at the potential starting lineup, shall we?

Steve Nash, PG
Kobe Bryant, SG
Nick Young, SF
Pau Gasol, PF
Chris Kaman, C

Or, if you'd prefer a smaller lineup (and Nick Young coming off the bench):

Steve Nash, PG
Steve Blake, SG
Kobe Bryant, SF
Pau Gasol, PF
Chris Kaman, C

Any way you want to look at it, that is a talented lineup, one that could certainly cause headaches to some contenders in the West, on Kobe and Pau's talent alone. But, let's face facts: this team wasn't going anywhere anytime soon. Sure, they could have potentially made a run for the 6th or 7th seed, but then what? Getting swept by the Spurs or the Blazers isn't exactly the makings of a contending team. This team's star players are old, so when they broke down, the whole team broke down. You can't build a contender on the legs of 35 year old Kobe Bryant and 40 year old Steve Nash, as good as they were. We know what most of these guys provide, so I'll gloss over how the current Lakers are built and look ahead to the future.

The future looks a lot better than what most people want to admit. The Lakers picked a perfect time to field the worst Lakers squad of the past 20 seasons because, after all of the draft choices they traded to get Dwight Howard and Nash, they still have their own 2014 draft choice, which was, incidentally, the one that was valued the least in trade talks because everybody expected the Lakers to be championship contenders for the near future. Now, the Lakers have a chance to get a top 10 draft choice in a draft where most of the Top 10 could have been the first overall pick during last year's draft. The names of this year's draft include Joel Embiid, Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Marcus Smart, Julius Randle, among others (more on them in a later article). A top 5 choice may give the Lakers a franchise player, while a top 10 choice will still go a long way to rebuilding the franchise.

Of course, one young player won't do it alone and the Lakers are well aware of that, having created a bench made of young, talented but ultimately forgotten former lottery picks like Kendall Marshall, Wesley Johnson and Xavier Henry. If they can keep them past this season is another story. The Lakers have also maintained their options open for free agency; the team only has Bryant, Nash, Sacre, Marshall and Nick Young under contract for next season for a total of 35.3 million dollars, largely thanks to Bryant's foolish max contract over the next two seasons, which makes up a little more than half of the salary cap available to the Lakers, without taking into account any possible exceptions and minimum salaries. This comes at an excellent time, because the next free agency period will include Carmelo Anthony, potentially LeBron James and some good, but not great players like Greg Monroe. The Lakers are in great position to completely shake up the franchise and add potential star players via draft and free agency, while retaining the services of Kobe Bryant. All of this without taking into account one anonymous NBA GM's comments about how 2015 free agent Kevin Love is "100% certain" to go to the Lakers. Taking that into account, the Lakers will likely not offer Anthony a max contract, or any contract at all, instead opting to put a few pieces here and there to set up Love coming to LA next season.

All in all, the Lakers seem in bad shape now, with only a few first round draft choices between now and 2019, but, in reality, the Lakers could climb back to the top of the mountain in a few short seasons if they don't waste anymore money (Bryant's contract is truly horrific), and if they manage to avoid a major draft bust in this year's draft. Not bad for a team who apparently mortgaged their future by trading for Howard and Nash.