As each NBA team is eliminated from contention for the 2015-16 title, The Washington Post will look ahead to what they have in store for this offseason. The series continues with the Los Angeles Lakers, who became the second team eliminated from playoff contention Wednesday night when the Houston Rockets beat the Philadelphia 76ers.
For the vast majority of their existence, it’s been pretty good to be the Los Angeles Lakers. Not only are they second only to their blood rivals, the Boston Celtics, in terms of championships (16), but through the 2013 season the Lakers had made the playoffs a staggering 60 times in their first 65 years in the league.
Recently, though, things haven’t been quite as good in Lakerland. This is the third straight year the Lakers will miss the playoffs – the first time that’s ever happened – and the franchise has suffered embarrassing losses in free agency each of the last three summers, as the Lakers failed to land their top targets in any of them. To imagine the Lakers being unable to lure stars to play for them was once unthinkable; now, however, it’s becoming the expectation.
That’s why this summer is so crucial for the franchise. The Lakers currently have the second-worst record in the NBA, putting them in position to potentially keep their first-round pick (if the pick goes outside of the top three, it will head to Philadelphia). Whether the Lakers keep the pick or not, they’ll also have to decide what to do with head coach Byron Scott, who has made some curious decisions with the team’s young talent, including D’Angelo Russell, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft.
That also doesn’t take into account the deadline put in place by owner Jeanie Buss for her brother, Jim, as well as general manager Mitch Kupchak, to have the team near the top of the Western Conference again by next season or else both of them will be looking for new employment.
All of this was simply looming in the background for the past several months as Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour gave the fans a final glimpse before he rides off into the sunset next month. With Bryant exiting the stage, though, the Lakers’ inadequacies will be on full display moving forward – that is, assuming they can’t finally begin to fix them.
2016 draft picks
First round: Their own (if it falls inside the top three picks; if it doesn’t, it goes to Philadelphia, via Phoenix, as part of the trade that brought Steve Nash to Los Angeles in 2012)
Second round: Their own
2016-17 salary cap space (with projected $90 million cap)
$59.8 million ($23.1 million committed to six players; $4.9 million to two draft picks; $2.2 million to four roster charges)
2016 free agents
PG Marcelo Huertas (restricted), SG Jordan Clarkson (restricted), PF Ryan Kelly (restricted), PF Tarik Black (restricted), PF Metta World Peace, C Roy Hibbert, C Robert Sacre
Five questions to answer
1. Will Byron Scott remain as the coach?
It’s been a strange two years with Scott, a Lakers legend, at the helm. Seemingly brought in to help Bryant have a familiar face around as he plays through his final two years in the league, Scott has often seemed to be working against the well-being of his team’s young players – Russell in particular.
There’s little reason, from a performance standpoint, he should remain in the job. This being the Lakers however, you can’t dismiss the possibility they keep him around. The most likely outcome though is Scott gets moved aside in favor of a fresh face to help usher in the post-Bryant era.
So who will it be? Golden State Warriors assistant Luke Walton, who grew up in San Diego and spent most of his career playing under Phil Jackson for the Lakers, figures to be the first choice both here and in New York. If Walton opts to take the Knicks job, or just decides it’s more fun to be working with the Warriors, former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau would be an obvious choice.
2. Can they keep their draft pick?
When the Lakers acquired Steve Nash back in 2012, they thought the combination of Nash, Bryant, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard would be leading them back to the NBA Finals. Things didn’t quite work out that way, as Nash immediately got injured, Howard played through a bad back, Bryant eventually tore his Achilles tendon and the Lakers eventually snuck into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed that was promptly swept out of the playoffs.
The longer-term penalty for that trade, though, could come due in May, when the Lakers will head to New York for the draft lottery to see if their horrid season will net them one of the top three picks in this year’s draft. If it does, Los Angeles will keep its pick, and get another critical building block to add to its young core of Russell, Clarkson and Julius Randle.
If it falls outside the top three, the Lakers will be left with further insult on top of what’s already been a painful season for them.
3. What is D’Angelo Russell’s future?
Los Angeles opted to go with Russell last June, with the Lakers saying they felt he had the most star-power of any player in the draft. They passed on big men Jahlil Okafor and Kristaps Porzingis in the process.
Then they proceeded to allow their coach to repeatedly destroy Russell’s confidence with his public statements in the media, and to yank him in and out of the lineup and rotation repeatedly throughout the first few months of the season.
Not only was this confusing, it was borderline insane behavior from Scott. Figuring out what Russell is capable of should have been the most important thing the Lakers did this season. Instead, they were more focused on making sure Bryant was feted properly at every turn.
There’s no question Bryant deserves every bit of the accolades he’s received, but Russell represents the best chance the Lakers have currently to replace him. He’s had his moments of late – scoring a career-high 39 points against the Nets March 1, and scoring at least 20 points in six of his last seven games – which only makes the earlier treatment of him this season all the more confusing.
4. Will the Lakers finally catch a star in free agency?
The Lakers have long been one of the NBA’s glamour franchises, the kind of team that any star player in the league would want to play for thanks to its combination of location and success. But the past three summers have seen that image take a big hit, thanks to the Lakers striking out each year in free agency.
First it was Dwight Howard deciding to leave Los Angeles for Houston. Then it was LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony both saying, “Thanks, but no thanks” in 2014. Finally, and most embarrassingly, it was LaMarcus Aldridge giving the Lakers a second meeting last summer out of pity after they’d botched the first one so badly.
While Kevin Durant is the obvious free agent prize this summer, there are still other players of consequence available, including Al Horford, Nicolas Batum and DeMar DeRozan, among others. The Lakers will be trying to get difference makers once again on the open market. We’ll see if this time will be any different.
5. What will be the Lakers’ post-Kobe identity?
For most of the past 20 years, the Lakers could easily be identified by one man: Kobe Bryant. That’s certainly been the case through the last couple of seasons, as his presence has helped mask just how awful this team has been because fans haven’t stopped coming out in droves to see him.
Take Thursday night, for example: the Lakers were in a nationally televised game with the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the entire focus of the game was on Bryant and James facing off one last time – not that the Lakers are in the midst of their third straight embarrassing season.
With Bryant finally set to ride off into the sunset next month though, that distraction is going to be removed, and the Lakers will be forced to confront the reality of the situation they find themselves in. And if they can’t begin to pull themselves up out of the NBA’s basement soon, the franchise’s reputation will begin to take an even bigger hit than it already has during its struggles over the past three years.
More in our NBA Postmortem series: