For the last couple of years the Lakers have been a bit of a punchline with their struggles following another extended run of success. Fans of other teams reveled in the fact that the Lakers had been brought back to Earth. Then, after awhile, things just got plain sad as Kobe Bryant limped passed Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list. Each time Byron Scott spoke about his basketball philosophy it only seemed to underscore just how far the franchise had fallen.
As we enter free agency it feels as if the perception of the team’s directed has changed favorably. Just one year ago the idea of the Lakers attracting a big time free agent was laughable. Other than the weather, there was no reason to go to Los Angeles. Bryant was breaking down and eating up over one-third of the team’s cap space and the team filled the rest of the roster in with mostly fringe NBAers. The Lakers were good for little more than Swaggy P quotes and #FutureLaker jokes on Twitter.
Today, things feel different. The Lakers have spent the past two seasons (three if you count the Dwight Howard season) trudging through the early steps of the rebuilding process, but have found a way to position themselves as an appealing destination for free agents.
For the first time in my life the Lakers are rebuilding through the draft. In years past the team has favored trading for its marquee players. Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, and even Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were all acquired via trade. The last time the Lakers were in a position to add a key player in free agency was, what, Ron Artest? You have to rack your brain even more to go farther back than that. The Lakers quickly found that these methods were no longer working and found themselves in the lottery like everyone else eventually does.
To show for their back-to-back lottery appearances the team has Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell to show for it. While Randle is still mostly an unknown because of his injury last season, he still figures to play a large part in the team’s frontcourt. As for Russell, the Lakers landed a player who some felt could turn out to be the best player in the draft.
With Randle and Russell on the roster, it’s easy to forget about Jordan Clarkson. Clarkson was the type of find every team needs to make at some point in the building process. In 51 games following his call up from the D-League, Clarkson shot 44.8 percent from the field. On the surface, Clarkson’s assist numbers don’t blow you away. When you dig deeper into his assist percentage and realize that he accounted for 23.8 percent of his team’s total assists on a a team bereft of shooting. All of this was accomplished with a 23 percent usage rate with just a 12.8 percent turnover rate.
With a point guard who is so efficient in all areas of the offense — not just shooting — Clarkson should be a nice fit next to Russell. Combined with the fact that Clarkson is 6’5 as well as Russell and you have a good sized backcourt, too.
There is a lot that remains unknown in regards to all three players, but the Lakers can legitimately say that they are finally building towards a sustainable future. For that success to be realized it may take another year or three, but it seems as if the Lakers are on the path back to relevancy.
Wait. They have cap space too?
The elephant on the payroll is obviously Kobe Bryant’s contract. Of the team’s $36.7 million on the books for next season (Before accounting for draft pick salaries) Bryant accounts for $25 million. The contract is what it is and we all know why it’s there. There’s no use in complaining about it because Kobe Bryant will be a Laker as long as he wants to be.
However, like everyone but Randle and Nick Young, Bryant’s contract expires after this season. That means that the Lakers will potentially have $30 million dollars in space both this summer and next. So, the Lakers could afford to add LaMarcus Aldridge-like contract, resign Ed Davis (GIVE THE MAN A MULTI-YEAR DEAL SOMEONE), and another next tier free agent and still have room to add a big player in 2016. Say the Lakers sign, say, DeAndre Jordan, they could return to the well next summer to get someone else.
The biggest challenge will be getting a star to be patient enough to wait out one losing season to get to the summer of 2017. We could see a lot of short term deals regardless, but a short term deal could be an idea considering the Lakers. A short term deal for one year or one year plus an option for a second would enable them to assess where the team is headed and what they can do. It may also be a way for the Lakers to finagle a few extra dollars for that summer because it doesn’t lock them into a long term contract.
In year’s past, people said that the Lakers always got everybody. What we’ve learned in these last couple of years is that the Lakers’ appeal had more to do with the fact that they were contenders rather than the purple and gold alone. The Lakers have quickly spun the direction of their franchise around and you can see, not only what is present, but what they could become.