Tuesday will be the most important date on the Los Angeles Lakers calendar since June 17, 2010 when they entered Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics. The Lakers won that night, and they must win on Tuesday night to keep their current rebuild on track. Never has the NBA draft lottery meant so much to the Purple and Gold.
For two straight years, the Lakers have gotten the ping pong balls to bounce their way. This year, they have roughly a 47 percent chance of landing among the top three picks of the 2017 NBA Draft. If their pick falls outside the top three, it will go to the Philadelphia 76ers as a last remnant of the ill-fated trade for Steve Nash. Not only that, but if that scenario plays out, the Orlando Magic will also get Los Angeles’ 2019 first-round pick as well. It would be a double-whammy for a franchise in need of assets.
There’s no other way to put this: the Lakers need this year’s pick badly. This will be one of the deepest drafts in years and there are several potential franchise-changing talents near the top of it. If the Lakers land in the top three they will be a better team because of it.
In the last two drafts, Los Angeles has done well, but the talent hasn’t led to an immediate turnaround. The team selected D'Angelo Russell with the second pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. He led the team in scoring during the 2016-17 season (if you don’t count the traded Lou Williams), but continued to be maddeningly inconsistent. Still, he’s a 21-year-old point guard with the skills to wind up as an All-Star if he can improve his shot and cut down on turnovers. He has a ways to go, but there is certainly promise there.
The Lakers wound up with the second pick in the 2016 NBA Draft and took Brandon Ingram, who showed star potential as a rookie. Ingram, who is still just 19 years old, has to put on weight and gain strength, but he flashed the kind of top-level basketball skill that was promised when he came out of Duke. Ingram certainly has to work on his 3-point shot and continue to get more aggressive offensively, but there is a ton to work with there. He is the kind of two-way player with the incredible length and athleticism all teams covet in the new NBA.
In the last two drafts the Lakers have also found gems late. Larry Nance Jr. was the 27th overall pick in 2015 and, when healthy, has developed into an indispensable bench piece. The uber-athletic 24-year-old could earn a starting spot depending on the team’s offseason moves. And with the 32nd overall pick in 2016, the Lakers snagged Croatian center Ivica Zubac, who was outstanding as a rookie. The 7’1″ 20-year-old could wind up as one of the steals of the draft, as he is highly-skilled on the offensive end and has the size to be a classic rim protector.
Added to those four players is a 24-year-old energizer Bunny-like guard in Jordan Clarkson and a 22-year-old all-effort battler in Julius Randle (two guys taken in the 2014 draft). Clarkson must become more efficient on both ends of the floor but has the makings of a great sixth man, and Randle will likely never be an All-Star but has become a leader who leaves it all on the floor at the forward spot. With those guys Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka and company have a decent six-man core to develop. But let’s face it, the Lakers need more.
Los Angeles secured its head coach of the future last offseason by gambling that the 37-year-old Luke Walton had the vision to build a contender from the ground up. Walton did as well as anyone could have expected in his first year, guiding a wildly young and undermanned team to a 26-56 record despite turmoil in the front office and inconsistency from his squad. Now he needs more help.
More than anything, Johnson and Pelinka have to score a win for their new regime. If they don’t land this year’s pick, both guys will spin the news as being expected or something they prepared for, but we all know there’s no way the entire franchise won’t feel it as a gut-punch.
Speaking of wins, the Lakers were far out of playoff contention late in the season and managed to go on a five-game winning streak in early April. Those victories vaulted them ahead of the Phoenix Suns in the standings and pushed their lottery odds lower. The Suns finished with 24 wins, two fewer than Los Angeles, and got wildly better odds as a result. While the team played really well during that streak, if the Lakers miss out on a top three pick, failing to fully tank late in the year could be an enormous blunder that haunts the franchise for years.
Getting lucky in the lottery is certainly not a make-or-break proposition for the Lakers, but it is incredibly important. The rebuild will go on even without that pick and could wind up being successful regardless. But adding a top three player in this year’s draft will accelerate the process tremendously and give the front office a ton of flexibility moving forward.
Los Angeles needs its pick this year. Tuesday night’s lottery has become the most important moment the Lakers have faced in almost seven years. How those lottery balls bounce could determine the future of the franchise.