The Los Angeles Lakers were able to keep their top three protected pick in this year’s draft, claiming the second overall pick in the lottery. With the second pick, the Lakers will likely end up choosing either Brandon Ingram or Ben Simmons, depending on which player the Philadelphia 76ers pass on. With that said, the Lakers are not bound to this pick and may decide to trade it in a package for an established star. Players such as Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and DeMarcus Cousins may be available in a trade this offseason which is an enticing option for a team that is used to landing superstars. Additionally, thanks to Jim Buss’ self-imposed three-year timeline to reach the Western Conference Finals, the pressure is on for the team to be significantly better than the past few years in order for him to keep his job.
No matter who the Lakers end up picking at number two, the player will immediately be a key member of the rotation with the potential to be a perennial all-star. Although Ingram is the much better roster fit for the Lakers, Simmons is an explosive player who could be virtually unstoppable if he can develop his jump shot. Perhaps the most accurate pro comparison to Simmons among draft experts is LeBron James. This is largely due to his tremendous athleticsm, point-forward ability and excellent passing skills for a guy 6’10”. Ingram, on the other hand, has been touted as the next Kevin Durant thanks to his nearly identical measurables to the Oklahoma City Thunder star combined with a deft shooting stroke that extends out past the three point line. It will be Ingram’s ability to spread the floor in Luke Walton’s offense that will make him a better fit than Simmons for the Lakers next year. Simmons needs to have the ball in his hands to be effective which could clash with D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle who also command significant touches. Ingram would not have the usage requirements of Simmons, and he would be able to immediately slide into the starting lineup at small forward whereas Simmons may be hard to fit in at the three with a similar player like Randle already playing power forward. However, regardless of whether the Lakers end up with Simmons or Ingram, they will be landing an exciting young player with the potential to have a higher ceiling than any current member of their roster. This may not significantly increase the Lakers’ wins in the short term, but adding another potential franchise cornerstone would give a huge boost to the team’s long term ambitions of revitalizing the franchise.
On the flip side, trading the pick would allow the Lakers to bring in an all-star player who would step in as the face of the franchise right away. Whether it be any of the three aforementioned players or perhaps another star, the Lakers would be adding a player that would provide a tremendous presence on the floor for the younger players while also significantly improving the bottom line of the team’s performance in the short term. Adding an established franchise player could also aid in signing potential free agents. All of the best teams in the league have either a big-two or big-three. If the Lakers already had a guy like Butler on their roster when making a pitch to someone like Durant, coming to L.A. would be a much more enticing proposition for the small forward. While adding a young player with great upside is fantastic for long-term ambitions, the Lakers need to compete this season, and bringing in a player of Butler’s ilk would be a much bigger help for their bottom line, rather than watching another young player go through the growing pains of the NBA. It is highly unlikely the team will be able to reach—or even get close for that matter—the Western Conference finals without at least two star players on the roster. Neither Clarkson, Russell or Randle are currently at that star level and whoever is drafted will also need a few years to become a true star in the league. This means that if Buss wants to meet his three-year goal, he needs to add two high impact players to the roster this offseason. Trading the draft pick for a superstar would get Buss one step closer to making his Western Conference finals goal a reality for the 2016-17 season.
Although it would be very exciting to have a true superstar caliber player on the Lakers again, Buss and GM Mitch Kupchak would be well served to keep the draft pick and select another talented young player. This outcome would not immediately propel the Lakers to being a championship contending team, but it would provide a significant boost to the long term health of the franchise. As things currently stand, it does not appear that any of the Lakers young core have the ability to be true superstars, but Ingram and Simmons both have that type of upside. A starting five of Russell, Clarkson, Ingram, Randle, and whoever the team adds at the center position would be a fantastic young team with the potential to be very good in the coming years. Patience is not a virtue that Lakers fans have been accustomed to over the franchise’s storied history, but it is a necessity in today’s NBA landscape. The current CBA makes it very difficult for teams to build through free agency. In all likelihood, Durant will not be making his way to L.A. this offseason, and with $60 million in cap space, the Lakers need to be smart and not throw a max contract at a player such as DeMar DeRozan. Rather than creating an entire roster based off of new additions, the Lakers would be well served to build the roster through the draft while supplementing the team with intelligent free agent acquisitions. If the Lakers were to draft Ingram and then add players such as Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore in free agency, this goal would be accomplished. Obviously, the team would probably not even be a playoff caliber team in this scenario, but this outcome would be far better than building the team around a player like DeRozan who is a tier below the superstar level. Unfortunately, this would mean Lakers fans need to begin exercising even more patience after the past few agonizing seasons. However, if fans want to see the team become a true powerhouse again in the years to come, this is the only way to accomplish that goal. For better or worse, the NBA is much different than it was just a few years ago. Hopefully, Kupchak and Buss recognize that by making intelligent roster decisions that can allow the team to grow into the powerhouse all Laker fans have been waiting to see again.