Lakers' dilemma: Search for a superstar or keep it together?

ByZach Lowe via ESPN logo
Thursday, December 22, 2016

The sheen has worn off the league's glitziest franchise. The reeling Lakers are 11-20, with a better chance at finishing with one of the league's three worst records -- and potentially keeping their first-round pick again -- than vaulting into the playoffs.

They have a bunch of interesting young players, but no surefire future All-Stars. It's early, particularly for a rookie so stringy he almost doesn't look real, but none of the Showtime Babies has stormed the league like Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns, or Joel Embiid. Three of them -- D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, and now Larry Nance Jr. -- already carry significant injury baggage.

This is when the impulsive, star-stalking Lakers would reach for some classic franchise plastic surgery: Flip two or three kiddos into an established star, and use that guy to lure a second superstar. Hell, that might even be a rational response to the new proposed collective bargaining deal.

Tweaks giving teams an edge in re-signing their own free agents will make it harder for L.A. to snare stars away. Lakers exceptionalism has flat-lined, anyway. Stars barely considered them over the past few summers. Beyond L.A., the pitch of, "Be the missing piece for our vaguely interesting .500-ish team of young guys!" hasn't appealed; stars shrugged and chose the Spurs and Warriors. The disastrous deals for Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng will make it hard for the Lakers to fit even one max-level deal signed after 2017, and almost impossible to absorb two. (The Lakers badly overpaid for Deng; Washington had traction with Deng on a three-year deal worth $20 million less overall than L.A. ended up paying, and was stunned to learn of L.A.'s offer, according to several league sources.)

In that environment, maybe the Lakers should bust up their young core to trade for a stud now -- to at least get one proven A-plus player in the door. Get one still locked into an ancient, pre-boom contract -- say, a temperamental big man playing 400 miles north and earning less than Allen Crabbe -- and the Lakers would have a brief moment in which they could carve out space for a free-agent co-star.

Luke Walton, the team's new head coach, doesn't want to hear it. "If you grow from within, you control your own destiny," he told ESPN.com. "That's the game plan. We want to see what this group can do. We don't want to rely on anything else -- on free agency, or trades."

He's right. The Lakers may not have a franchise player, but they should resist the shiny-object quick fix.

The Lakers will probably have to be one of those greater-than-the-sum-of-its parts teams. It will take a long time, but you can already spot the blurry outlines of an intriguing group that can swap roles in a Warriors-infused motion offense and switch across a bunch of positions on defense.

Russell is the nominal point guard, but he may never be the sort of puppet master who conducts every possession. If Walton's vision crystallizes, he won't have to be.

He's just 20-of-77 shooting out of the pick-and-roll so far this season with a hideous turnover rate and a penchant for flinging wild floaters:

"He's trying to draw fouls," Walton said, "instead of just going up to finish."

He's not an explosive athlete, and he's barely making half his shots at the basket. He will never suck five panicked defenders into the paint like Russell Westbrook. He's addicted to launching 3s off the pick-and-roll, but he's a putrid 6-of-32 on such triples, per Synergy Sports.

There is a casual looseness to his game that has to go -- cavalier high dribbles, and lazy pocket passes into a thicket of enemy arms and legs.

Zoom out, and all this is fine. Russell is 20, and he spent his rookie season watching Kobe Bryant shoot. The Kobe nostalgia tour wasted a year of player development. The kids scrapped for Kobe's leftovers instead of learning to share in a functional offense. The Lakers barely know what they have as the trade deadline approaches, and it's mostly their own fault. (It was a great stealth tank job, though!)

"It was definitely a strange year," Nance told ESPN.com. "Playing with Kobe was awesome. I wouldn't trade it for anything. But it was a weird season."

Russell will get better. He's bursting with Ph.D.-level point guard craft. He'll zoom around a screen, slow down, put a guy on his rear like Chris Paul and scan the floor as every help defender wonders what the hell is coming next. He'll finish more shots around the basket as he grows comfortable navigating NBA big men.

He'll juke dudes with mean in-and-out dribbles and hesitation moves, slither into the lane, and drop slick interior passes:

He also knows when to cut the dribbling exhibitions, and just get rid of the damn ball:

And remember: He's learning all this playing a majority of minutes with Deng, Randle, and Mozgov on a cramped floor with zippo spacing.

Best of all: Russell is dangerous off the ball. He's shooting 46 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, and he's always on his toes, bouncing into open patches of space. That's essential given both Russell's limitations and the presence of two other capable ball handlers: Randle and Brandon Ingram.

Randle is a bowling ball rampaging coast-to-coast, and his passes in transition have created some of the most efficient shots in the league, according to internal analytics from opposing teams:

He's a nasty screen-setter when he wants to be, and he can roll toward the foul line, catch the ball, and make plays in space like an unrefined Draymond Green:

Look again at that sequence: Randle's first pass comes a beat too late, after an aimless dribble, and costs Ingram an open 3. The second dish is instant -- proof Randle can make the right reads, at the right pace. Imagine when he nails it every time? Nance already does. Together, they could form one of the best passing big-man partnerships in the league.

And then there is Ingram -- a blank slate who looks more like an inflatable tube man on a used-car lot than an NBA player. He's shooting just 35 percent, and it will be years before his body fills out. We have no clue what he is.

But he's already comfortable handling the ball, and not just as a fake point guard who brings it up and gets out of the way. This is some straight-up advanced NBA playmaking:

"You can't teach that feel," Walton said. "We feel very confidently about the player he is going to become."

Ingram is also a sneaky cutter along the baseline. His smooth jumper will come around. None of these guys are good enough to commandeer the ball on every possession, but that's fine so long as they all remain buzzing threats away from it.

These are the possessions that keep Walton dreaming amid the losses:

(You see the flare screen that springs Russell at the end? Nance lives for that. "Oh, man, I just head hunt out there," Nance said. "I blast people." Can you tell I love Larry Nance Jr.? He also said he's glad the Lakers don't play the Nets again, so that Brook Lopez can't avenge Nance's murder-by-dunk from earlier this month. "I'm afraid he might beat me up," Nance said. Get well, Larry!)

Walton's challenge is coaxing young, score-first players gunning for their next contracts toward selfless play. "Young guys have a bad habit of always wanting the ball," Walton said. "You have to trust that if you give it up, you're going to get it back."

This goes even for Russell -- and maybe especially for Russell. "We don't want possessions where he just dribbles the whole time, even if he scores," Walton said. "Those are bad possessions for our group."

Finding collective flow will take years. Nance jokingly laments all shots he has to hoist after an L.A. guard dribbles for 10 seconds and hot-potatoes the ball to him with the shot clock running down. "Our guards love to hand me those grenades," he said.

The Lakers will fly through one or two actions, only to sputter when the third guy has to wait for a screen that was supposed to arrive with the ball. "Those two- and three-second stall outs kill you," Walton said. "All the movement up to that point is wasted. It just takes time. It takes reps. It takes a commitment to playing that way."

Classic YMCA motion doesn't get you anywhere if defense can just switch every action. The Lakers might have antidotes for that, too. Russell and Jordan Clarkson are cagey enough to clown big men; Russell has been one of the deadliest one-on-one players in the league over the past two seasons, per Synergy Sports.

Randle can eviscerate little guys on the block, and Ingram has the height to do the same once he packs on some heft; he couldn't even dislodge Kyrie Irving in the post last week in Cleveland.

Switching could be the only salve for L.A.'s horrific defense. Russell is huge for a point guard. Ingram is a freak. Both Randle and Nance are mobile enough to chase guards. You see glimpses of what they might do in a switch-almost-everything scheme, especially as Walton grows more comfortable playing Nance and Randle together as a smallish front line:

"Our defense was so bad, we decided, 'You know what? Let's just switch everything,'" Walton said, laughing. "But it activated our guys. It got them engaged. It can be an effective strategy for us."

Again: It might take, literally, years for the Lakers to become not-awful on defense. Young guys are just bad at it. Russell and Clarkson die on screens, and their effort wanes. Transition defense is a chronic problem. Randle's motor revs depending on his mood; he can be ground-bound and unaware, or suddenly spring for five blocks in a stunning display of rim protection -- as he did against Charlotte on Tuesday.

Nance is solid, and he learned the art of verticality from Roy Hibbert during Hibbert's one season in L.A. "Roy's a 7-footer, but he can't jump over a credit card," Nance said. "I'm 6-8, but I can get up. I should be good at it." (For the record, Hibbert said Nance is stealing the "credit card" insult from Bryant).

But Nance is a good defender, not a great one. He's undersized against bigs, and inconsistent scrambling against waterbugs. He can't snuff out a cascade of errors, and, holy cow, do the Lakers make a ton of errors -- even when they keep things simple and switch:

The Lakers screw up the initial switch so often, it sometimes looks like they're switching by accident -- or because Clarkson and Russell have fallen hopelessly behind the play. The subsequent rotations can be a Keystone Kops-level horror show. They are a bad rebounding team that gets worse -- for now -- when they switch their big men out toward the perimeter. The Lakers have bled points playing Nance and Randle together.

This core may never grow into a good defense. Russell and Clarkson are flammable together, and if that persists, the Lakers will need to find another starting wing once Nick Young bolts. The Randle-Nance combo may not work over 25-plus minutes per game, though Walton is optimistic. "We can't use a steady diet of it now," Walton said. "But down the line, if those guys develop -- if they see the game well -- that can be a great lineup for us."

(The Nance-Randle duo also doesn't solve L.A.'s spacing issues, though they move and pass with enough zip to open corridors -- a different sort of spacing. Walton wants both of them to let it fly from outside.)

Regardless, a lot of L.A.'s mistakes on defense are typical of young players. That typicality is encouraging. The Lakers will button up, and they've landed on some basic strategies that fit their roster. It's too early to short-circuit that for DeMarcus Cousins as the centerpiece on a gutted team with an uncertain path toward max-level cap space. That movie has played on a continuous, miserable loop for seven years. If L.A. could bid the Kings down to a package of just Randle, Clarkson, and one future first-rounder, they'd have to do it, but the Kings aren't selling that low.

Cousins doesn't appear to be available with the No. 8 seed in reach for Sacramento as the Blazers flail around, though no one knows what to expect of the Kings. They are an irrational actor.

Larry Bird isn't returning calls on Paul George with a friendly new CBA on the way, according to teams who have inquired. Russell Westbrook is off the market. Pulling any trade before the Lakers know if they have a pick near the top of a loaded draft feels reckless.

The Lakers would be selling low, anyway. Their young guys might be considered more unproven than intriguing, though opinions about them among rival front offices are all over the place. Some executives would trade Ingram and Russell for Cousins today. Others consider that lunacy.

The Lakers should let this marinate. If the youngsters carry them toward .500 next season, they'll have something real to sell free agents again. Cap room will be down across the league once the new CBA kicks in; the days of 60- and 70-win teams hoarding max slots will be over until the next mega-spike in the salary cap -- if such an event ever happens. The factors that made L.A. special -- variables that made the Lakers with cap room a boogeyman every rival feared -- will rise in importance again.

The free-agency path is never certain; the Lakers might have to waive one of Mozgov or Deng with the stretch provision at some point to crack open enough room before their young guys get really rich.

But trading for one star now doesn't guarantee anything given those same cap constraints. How are the one-star teams outside Houston doing this season? If L.A.'s young guys improve, so will their trade value. And if they improve together, in the right ways, they could coalesce into the kind of team where everyone makes each of his teammates a little better.

"We talk about it," Nance said. "How this could be something special, as long as nobody gets too big for his britches -- as long as we all realize we are part of something bigger, and nobody gets a big head."