Los Angeles Lakers part owner and head of basketball operations Jim Buss sounded very optimistic about the franchise’s future in a recent interview with USA Today’s Sam Amick. Not only does he think the team has “turned the corner,” but he’s also confident that he’ll have them contending in two years, which is the deadline he has before sister Jeanie takes over.
Obviously Buss is going to be positive when discussing the roster he assembled, and he did make good points about how team-building strategies have changed since the new collective bargaining agreement kicked in, which means he’s not completely out of touch. Thinking the Lakers are close to being a great team, however, does seem a little delusional.
After striking out twice on top-level free agents despite having the cap space to sign them, Buss believes the Lakers will get one next season. The reason why he thinks that’ll happen is because the team has some young talent.
“Here are the core players,” Buss said his pitch will be. “You’ve seen how they play. You know, given one more year of experience, they’re going to be right there. You’re the missing piece.”
Before tackling the young core, let’s go over the Lakers’ roster. Kobe Bryant hasn’t been healthy for two years and will probably retire. So will Metta World Peace. Roy Hibbert is on the last year of his contract and was notoriously mentally fragile in Indiana. Those are the three players that have ever made an All-Star team.
Lou Williams is a good bench scorer and Nick Young could regain his touch from outside, so they can offer some backcourt depth. Brandon Bass could be around and he’s a good pro who can sop up minutes at power forward. The rest of the roster is comprised of young fringe players who might not be in the league in two years. The Lakers better hope their budding young core is enough to convince a star, because depth isn’t a selling point.
So let’s look at the core Buss touts so highly: Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell.
Clarkson had a terrific rookie season after being drafted in the second round and not contributing much early on. He proved he belongs in the league and has looked good in preseason. No one would consider him a cornerstone, but he’s young and he’s good. With time, he could be a starter on a good team or a super-sub who brings instant offense off the bench.
Randle is virtually a rookie after breaking his leg during his first pro game and being out for the year. He was a highly regarded college player and many felt the Lakers got a steal when they selected him with the seventh pick in the 2014 draft. There’s some star potential there, as he’s big enough to handle power forwards on defense while being quicker and more explosive than most of the players he’d go up against at that position.
Finally, there’s Russell, the second overall pick on the 2015 draft. Russell has the shooting prowess and court vision to be Stephen Curry lite. With the league overflowing with talent at point guard, every contender needs its own elite playmaker and Russell could eventually be that guy for the Lakers. He certainly turned heads in college with his play and could do it again as a pro.
So if those guys are good, is Buss right about having a core in place? No, not really. Those descriptions can be considered accurate, but they’re also partial.
There’s a reason Clarkson fell to the second round: he was older than most prospects in his draft class, he can’t shoot and he might not be quick enough to defend point guards at the NBA level. Randle has one of the smallest wingspans ever recorded among power-forward prospects, which could limit his impact on both ends. Russell has struggled to show star power in Summer League and preseason, and he isn’t imposing from a physical standpoint at a position that’s getting bigger and more athletic.
Again, when considering strengths and weaknesses, they’re three very good prospects, especially the younger Russell and Randle. But they’re not a legitimate core now, and even if they exceed expectations during the regular season, there will be lingering questions about how good they can be. That’s just how it happens with any young player except for generational talents like LeBron James or Anthony Davis.
Simply put, it’s extremely hard to imagine Kevin Durant — the only transformational star that’ll be an unrestricted free agent — looking at the Lakers’ roster and thinking he is, as Buss puts it, the missing piece.
There’s a chance the Lakers swing a trade for a star during the season and chase another one in the offseason. DeMarcus Cousins was reportedly available for a while and Los Angeles native Paul George doesn’t seem all that happy in Indiana.
The problem is the Lakers don’t have a lot of assets. Their top three protected first-round pick in 2016 is likely going to the Philadelphia 76ers. Clarkson will become a free agent next summer, which means he won’t be cheap anymore. That means they’d have to include one of Randle or Russell, or maybe both.
Again, would Durant look at a core of Russell and Cousins and decide to join them over Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka or John Wall and Bradley Beal on teams with proven depth? It doesn’t seem likely.
That’s probably why Buss wants the deadline pushed back before facing judgement. According to him, he has three years to turn things around, not two. That would change things dramatically, as it would allow him to focus on getting some talent in free agency this year to add to a core that’ll be more established in the summer of 2017, when Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook are set to become free agents. He has a much bigger chance to turn things around then than in the summer of 2016.
The Lakers have some intriguing young talent and will have gobs of cap space, but that doesn’t mean they have a core and are going to land a free agent. They’re not ahead of schedule by any means if the goal is to contend, which is totally fine. It typically takes time to go from terrible to elite, but the Lakers seem on their way and Buss must be commended for it.
Raising expectation now, however, might not be in the best interest of the fan base. It’s understandable for Buss to want to spin things as positive, but if the faithful believe him, they might be in for a rude awakening next summer.