The losing streaks have been insufferable to Laker fans and the team. Morale is at an all-time low. Players have been waived. Other players are named in trade rumors. There’s a lot of intangible fluctuation surrounding the team, but the team marches on.
As a franchise, the Lakers need to stop, regroup, think of a strategy, and execute. There are a few options for the Lakers that all other teams have, lower-level exception money, mid-level exception money (assuming the team is over the cap), trades, free agency, and the draft.
One question I’m asked every year is, “Should the Lakers draft by position or best player available?” My answer is the best player available. Here’s why.
Think about Kobe Bryant. Think about how you, as a fan, have watched him grow in the past eighteen seasons. Think of all the championships won. Think of all the individual accolades. Think about how he won championships through two championship windows, with Shaquille O’Neal and without him. Think of how he broke multiple scoring records trying to keep the team afloat. Think of all the game winners. Think of the joy you felt as a fan. That’s a lot of thinking.
Now, imagine the Laker team without him. Newer Laker fans who didn’t experience the joy of the 1980′s Lakers can’t imagine the team much without him. The 1996 Laker team didn’t NEED to draft him. Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones were All-Star guards in the making. Nick Van Exel was the team’s new Mr. Clutch. Eddie Jones played stellar defense, posterized Shawn Bradley twice in the same game, and hit threes. Shaquille O’Neal was later acquired on the team. There was plenty of talent on that late-90′s Laker team, but they could never get over the hump. The San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz gave them fits every season in the playoffs, usually ending in being swept. Kobe Bryant needed to mature as a player on both ends of the court before the championships came. He had a talent that Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones couldn’t match.
So, what do the Lakers need? The team needs a new franchise player. Kobe Bryant gave his absolute all to the team, so questioning the contract extension seems irrelevant to argue. Pau Gasol has a few flashes of brilliance, but can’t carry the team with the same amount of energy and fervor from game-to-game to keep the Lakers a playoff contender. There are too many injuries. Kobe Bryant needs a player to pass the torch to. Both the Lakers and Kobe Bryant alike, need a player that understands the responsibility of maximizing one’s individual talent, and what it means for the team, the organization, the city, and the league. They need a new leader.
There are a lot of great NBA prospects in the upcoming 2014 draft. The most notable names are Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Aaron Gordon, Dante Exum, Julius Randle, Noah Vonleh, Marcus Smart, and Zach Lavine. The Lakers may not even fly up the early lottery to find that special talent. But, of the draft, Kobe was drafted 13th, the last of the lottery picks. His career turned out better than Allen Iverson, Antoine Walker, Ray Allen, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Marcus Camby, Stephon Marbury, and Steve Nash; full of All-Star talents, MVPs, scoring leaders, and defensive leaders. Kobe Bryant wasn’t as highly touted because he was a guard coming out of high school. Fortunately for the Lakers, he donned a Laker jersey. The team was smart enough to draft a second leader in Derek Fisher, and the rest is history.
It isn’t always the guys with the best talent that win championships. It’s the guys with the best character and approach to the game coinciding with elite talent. That man is out there. Amidst all of the losses, hope can be reserved for when the franchise rises again to championship glory. It all starts with the draft. It all starts with the best player available.