BY JOSH MARTIN FOR THE BLEACHER REPORT
As the late, great Aaliyah once sang, “If at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again.”
The Los Angeles Lakers appear to have taken that repurposed adage to heart. Last summer, on the heels of watching Dwight Howard dance his way to Houston, the Lakers went hard after LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony but fell flat on both accounts. This time around, they swung and missed on LaMarcus Aldridge, DeAndre Jordan and Greg Monroe.
One of these days, a top-tier free agent is going to buy what the Lakers are selling and not just as a product of sheer persistence on the part of the NBA’s marquee franchise. At this point, the Purple and Gold are counting on the precocious but unproven trio of D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson to improve and eventually make their pitch to players in search of a new home.
With any luck, those three will eventually have the chops to pull it off.
The key word is “eventually.” If there’s anything the Lakers learned from their sojourn to NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, it’s that their most promising prospects all appear to be a long way from actualizing their tantalizing potential, both individually and as a collective.
Clarkson was clearly the most comfortable of the three, as well he should’ve been. The Missouri product, who was named to the All-Rookie First Team last season, came in with an understanding of how to compete against grown men that most of the recent collegians in summer league simply don’t have.
Ultimately, though, Clarkson, who’s already 23 and was taken 46th overall in 2014, isn’t the one to whom the Lakers’ hopes—of returning to title contention and luring in game-changing free agents—will be pinned. Rather, that distinction belongs to the untested lottery-selected tandem of Randle and Russell.
Randle looked rusty during his four summer-league appearances and understandably so. He hadn’t played a live-action game at anything approaching this level since breaking his leg in the Lakers’ 2014-15 season opener.
All told, the No. 7 pick in the 2014 draft averaged 11.5 points and four rebounds while shooting 39.5 percent from the field in his team-limited 20.5 minutes per game. As Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver wrote, Randle still leans all too heavily on one hand to do his work on the offensive end:
The strength of his game is his offense, and there he remains very, very predictable. His preference for directly attacking the basket is obvious, his reliance upon his left hand is even more obvious, and his finishing ability has been lacking…
Randle’s comfort with the ball in his hands and natural scoring drive help him draw lots of contact, and he’s been a regular at the free-throw line. But for much of this week, he has been a one-trick pony, albeit a very muscular and determined pony.
Randle won’t be able to overpower NBA opponents quite so easily or as often as he did in high school and college. It’ll be imperative to his prospects of success to work his way closer to ambidexterity and away from predictability while turning his jump shot into a bona fide weapon.
Fortunately for the Lakers, Russell’s jumper won’t need quite as much fine-tuning. Contrary to what his subpar summer-league shooting splits (37.7 percent from the field, 11.8 percent from three, 68.8 percent from the free-throw line) would suggest, Russell looked comfortable and confident with his stroke, particularly during L.A.’s summer-league finale (21 points on 10-of-20 shooting versus Utah).
The same could be said of Russell’s passing. The No. 2 pick in 2015 had considerable difficulty getting the ball to his teammates cleanly. He averaged a whopping 5.2 turnovers per game and, according to Synergy Sports (h/t Bleacher Report’s Dylan Murphy), coughed it up on 27.4 percent of his possessions—the sixth-highest mark among all summer-leaguers across Sin City, Utah and Orlando.
Those are ugly numbers to be sure, but there’s still hope to be found therein. As Murphy explained, most of Russell’s miscues were the product of aggressive attempts to make plays for his teammates:
Of Russell’s 26 turnovers at summer league, 17 were aggressive. Most of those 17 derived from his passing, and, in particular, trying to fit the ball into tight spaces.
Russell’s ball distribution is one of the most attractive parts of his game. His ability to both see and create passing angles is remarkably advanced for such a young player. But the consequence of this talent is being turnover-prone, and part of Russell’s development will be understanding when to unleash his talents.
On the one hand, Russell’s struggles don’t figure to abate once he finds himself matched up against longer, stronger and quicker stoppers operating within more complex defensive schemes. On the other hand, he should have an easier time getting the ball to Kobe Bryant, Roy Hibbert and Lou Williams than he did trying to distribute it to the likes of Robert Upshaw, Anthony Brown and Larry Nance Jr.
As it happens, time will be the most important ingredient for both Russell and Randle. The former is 19, the latter is 20, and each spent a single season playing college ball—Russell at Ohio State, Randle at Kentucky. They’re both exceedingly young and will need ample opportunity to tack on some much-needed NBA seasoning while working through their growing pains.
The Lakers can only hope those won’t turn into actual, physical pains. Their recent downturn has been as much about injuries as it has been about backfiring trades and free-agent failures. In 2013-14, the Lakers logged 319 games lost because of injury, per Lakers reporter Mike Trudell. According to the Los Angeles Times’ Eric Pincus, they managed to top that mark in 2014-15 with a total of 339 games lost.
Should this coming Lakers season go the way of the last two, the organization will once again have some incentive to be terrible. L.A.’s 2016 first-round pick will transfer to the Philadelphia 76ers if it lands outside the top three in the draft lottery. Thus, if circumstances dictate another lost season early on, the Lakers could find themselves in full-on tank mode.
Don’t expect that to be the case if the Lakers look like anything close to a competitive club, though, especially in what’s expected to be Bryant’s final season. This team’s mantra has long been about trying to win, even during these darkest of days.
And as much reason as L.A. may have to pull back on the reins again in 2015-16, it’ll have even more cause for pushing toward on-court improvement. Chances are the Lakers’ lackluster performance over the past three seasons has had plenty to do with their inability to land elite free agents.
The truth of the matter is the best free agents, the ones who are either in or just entering their primes, aren’t inclined to spend their most productive years toiling away on rebuilding teams. Why suffer in a big city when a player can make the same money (and maybe more, depending on local tax codes) and access the same global market for the good of his brand while playing on a successful squad in a smaller market?
That same calculus figures to be a major factor in free agency yet again during the summer of 2016. As Grantland’s Zach Lowe recently noted, there could be upward of 20 teams with enough cap room to sign at least one free agent to a max contract next July. The market is due to be flooded with cash from the league’s new national TV deal, which is expected to send the cap skyrocketing toward $90 million in 2015-16 and $108 million in 2016-17.
The Lakers should have room to sign multiple max-level players if they so choose—and if such players choose them. Bryant’s $25 million salary and Hibbert’s $15.6 million take will be off the books after this coming season, leaving L.A. with a veritable chasm of cap space.
Lakers’ Upcoming Salary Outlook
Kobe Bryant $25,000,000
Roy Hibbert $15,592,216
Lou Williams $7,000,000 $7,000,000
Nick Young $5,219,169 $5,443,918
D’Angelo Russell $5,103,120 $5,332,800
Julius Randle $3,132,240 $3,267,120
Brandon Bass $3,000,000 $3,135,000
Ryan Kelly $1,724,250 $2,155,313
Larry Nance Jr. $1,155,600 $1,207,680
Robert Sacre $981,348
Jordan Clarkson $845,059 $1,180,431
Tarik Black $845,059 $1,180,431
Jabari Brown $845,059 $1,180,431
Anthony Brown $700,000 $874,636
TOTAL $71,143,120 $31,957,760
The question is, who’s going to fill it? Most of the impact guys who might’ve been available in 2016, had they signed shorter deals in preparation for the coming deluge of TV money, opted instead for longer contracts right now.
That does nothing to diminish the impact that Kevin Durant, Al Horford and Mike Conley could have as headliners of next year’s free-agent class.
But the Lakers won’t have much need for Conley if Russell pans out. And everyone and their mother will be after Durant and Horford and will have the requisite financial flexibility to do so. Among those in pursuit will be the incumbents—Oklahoma City for Durant, Atlanta for Horford—both of which will likely have more to offer in terms of recent results and immediate outlook to players they’ve employed since their respective draft days.
As for the rest of the class of 2016, the pickings could be slim, as Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick detailed:
Many of the players (Kobe Bryant, Joakim Noah, Joe Johnson, Luol Deng, Al Jefferson, David Lee, Nene) are already into their 30s, most seemingly and some unequivocally in decline. Others have lost some of their luster, whether due to injuries (Eric Gordon, Brandon Jennings) or ineffectiveness (Roy Hibbert, Nicolas Batum). Others (Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond) are restricted free agents, and we know they almost never leave their current teams. There’s one wild card, Hassan Whiteside, who showed his talent in the second half of last season, but whose bumpy road to the NBA may mitigate his payday.
That could put L.A. in a position where it has little (if any) choice but to overpay second- or third-tier free agents. Per the league’s collective bargaining agreement, a team must spend at least 90 percent of the cap on player salaries. Any shortfall would have to be divvied up among those on the roster.
In truth, the Lakers have gone much longer without a major free-agent coup than the team’s reputation as a destination indicates. Come next summer, 20 years will have come and gone since L.A. last lured a big fish (Shaquille O’Neal) to its shores.
But O’Neal didn’t come to a team on the skids. Those Lakers were two years removed from their last trip to the lottery, with seasons of 48 and 53 wins preceding Shaq’s arrival.
The odds of today’s Lakers establishing such a sturdy foothold this season seem slim.
The Western Conference playoff picture looks to be as crowded as ever in 2015-16. In all likelihood, Byron Scott’s Lakers would have to engineer a turnaround of at least 20 wins to so much as sniff the eighth seed, with teams such as the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans angling to lock down the others.
And, as with free agents in the summers to come, the Lakers won’t be short of competition for that final berth. The Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings will all have something to say about it as well.
This isn’t to say the coming season will necessarily be playoffs-or-bust for the Lakers. Any strides they can make, in terms of both wins and establishing a style of play, will be crucial for courting prospective free agents. The list of potential signees in 2017 is littered with All-Stars, impact players and franchise-changers:
Top Free Agents for 2017
Unrestricted Free Agents Status
LeBron James* Unrestricted
Dwight Howard* Unrestricted
Derrick Rose Unrestricted
Blake Griffin Unrestricted
Russell Westbrook Unrestricted
Chandler Parsons* Unrestricted
Ty Lawson Unrestricted
Stephen Curry Unrestricted
Andre Iguodala Unrestricted
Serge Ibaka Unrestricted
DeMar DeRozan* Unrestricted
Zach Randolph Unrestricted
Giannis Antetokounmpo Restricted
Victor Oladipo Restricted
Nikola Mirotic Restricted
Nerlens Noel Restricted
Spotrac, * = option in 2016
The onus will be on Bryant to cobble together a strong farewell tour and on the team’s other veterans (i.e. Hibbert, Williams, Nick Young, Brandon Bass) to lay a foundation upon which the Lakers’ youth movement can fashion a brighter future—ideally, one that will appeal to franchise-changing free agents.
There’s no doubt the Lakers will keep scoring meetings with those types of players in early July. They won’t always succeed in signing their top targets, but so long as they dust themselves off and try again, they’ll always have a shot.