With an estimated $64 million in available cap space heading into this off-season, the Los Angeles Lakers will look to substantially upgrade their core by adding multiple established veterans to a roster topped by budding young stars D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Julius Randle. In the wake of NBA champion and future hall of famer Kobe Bryant’s 60-point career finale, multiple generations of Lakers fans find themselves looking to the Buss family and Lakers brass for a clear plan to return the franchise to championship contention. Jim Buss, President of Basketball Operations, will play a critical role in determining which free agents to pursue and how to handle the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming 2016 NBA draft. In addition, the unique circumstances surrounding the new NBA television deal and corresponding spike in cap space for teams around the league will further complicate the decisions the franchise will have to make this summer.
In February of 1980, Lakers owner Jerry Buss was able to convince Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Ted Stepien to trade Cleveland’s future first round pick and Butch Lee to the Lakers for former 6th round pick Don Ford and that year’s first round pick. Lee, who had a history of injury problems, played for 11 games with the Lakers, and then succumbed to a career ending leg injury. The Lakers did go on to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA finals later that year, but the trade was criticized at the time due to Lee’s injury. The pick the Lakers received from Cleveland famously turned into “Big Game” James Worthy, who helped bring Los Angeles multiple championships as part of the Magic Johnson led “Showtime” era. In fact, the deal turned out so lopsided in favor of the Lakers that the NBA created a special rule called the Ted Stepien Rule, preventing teams from trading consecutive first round picks.
When the Lakers traded an established starting center for an unproven high school prospect from Philadelphia on draft day in June of 1996, NBA fans and many members of the media balked at the trade. Vlade Divac was a solid scoring big man, and few teams in the league were bold enough to gamble on high school players at the time. With one trade, Jerry West and Mitch Kupchak were able to secure a future superstar while freeing up enough salary to eventually lureShaquille O’Neal from Orlando in free agency. Along with Derek Fisher and several key veteran pieces, this duo was able to win 3 consecutive NBA championships in the early 2000’s, including a 2001 squad that posted a record-setting 15-1 record in the playoffs.
With the 2nd overall pick in the 2015 draft, Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak faced a pivotal decision: draft the NBA ready, former consensus number 1 pick Jahlil Okafor, or take the high risk but high reward D’Angelo Russell to be the next cornerstone of the franchise. The Lakers elected to go with the 6’5” point guard from Ohio State over Okafor, despite mixed opinions on whether or not Russell would be athletic enough to score against and (more importantly) defend the elite NBA guards in the Western Conference. As Russell struggled out of the gate in summer league and for the first several months of the regular season, Okafor fulfilled expectations as a double-double machine on a talent deficient Philadelphia 76ers team. Social media exploded on a nightly basis, labeling Russell as a bust and mocking the Lakers organization for passing up on the high ceiling player in Okafor.
As the season continued, injuries and off the court troubles began to affect Okafor’s production, and Russell came out of the all-star break on fire as a starter for the Lakers, averaging nearly 20 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists. With their rookie campaigns in the books, Russell has established himself as a solid NBA starter with elite offensive capabilities, and Okafor has shown promise, but appears to be a significant injury risk moving forward. While time will tell if Russell was the better choice, it appears the Lakers, yet again, made a strong decision against the grain that paid off handsomely.
While much has been made of recent failed courtship of high-profile free agents like Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, LaMarcus Aldridge, and others, the Lakers decision makers have quietly made multiple shrewd moves and carved out valuable cap space. By evaded panic moves like bad signings, poor draft choices, and lopsided trades customary of less successful franchises, the Lakers organization has been able to accumulate a group of young and promising players while preserving cap flexibility for rebuilding. The fan base may be anxious about the future, but a look into the history of the franchise shows a pattern of consistently bold and insightful decisions that initially received criticism, but ultimately lead the team to championship success. Whether it is landing a marquee veteran free agent like Kevin Durant, stealing away an ascending star like Miami’s Hassan Whiteside, or signing multiple undervalued players like Demar Derozan or Harrison Barnes, the Lakers will need to make a big splash in free agency this summer to reverse the recent fortunes of the franchise.