How did the LA Lakers get here?
It’s the question the organisation would be repeatedly asking itself amid a horror 3-10 start to the season where, crucially, it doesn’t own its first-round draft pick.
Yes, a Lakers team that currently has the third-worst record in the entire NBA doesn’t have rights to its first pick in a season where the likely first overall selection, generational talent Victor Wembanyama, is being touted as the best prospect in years.
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Thu, 17 Nov
Thursday November 17th
The Lakers’ first rounder is in possession of the New Orleans Pelicans following the Anthony Davis trade from 2019.
It saw LA part ways with a massive haul of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and multiple first round picks including an unprotected pick swap in 2023 to secure Davis.
Sure, the move worked out for the Lakers in the short term, winning the 2020 championship under the lead of LeBron James and Davis.
But just two years on from that triumph, LA finds itself in a very grim position … where things could yet get much worse.
“Would you trade an NBA championship for the chance to draft Wembanyama?” ESPN’s Bobby Marks wrote.
“That‘s the existential question facing Lakers fans, who can take solace in the 2020 championship banner hanging in their arena, even as they stare down the possibility of sending New Orleans the No. 1 pick as part of the trade that brought Anthony Davis to Los Angeles.
“That‘s right: A New Orleans team that has 14 out of its 15 players under contract next season could have two franchise players under contract for the foreseeable future in (Zion) Williamson and Wembanyama.”
The Lakers have struggled badly in the early parts of this season, in large due to having the league’s second-worst offensive rating (105.4) and worst three-point percentage (30.7 per cent).
You have to feel for new coach Darvin Ham, who took over a team devoid of shooting and depth with no real flexibility to make significant changes with so much salary cap tied up to James, Davis and Russell Westbrook.
And really, there’s not many levers Ham can pull to try and improve the situation. The move of Westbrook to the bench has at least helped the guard’s individual play, although it hasn’t been as effective for the team at large.
Outside of their core three, the supporting cast just isn’t strong enough.
In fairness, while most predicted the Lakers wouldn’t be much more than a fringe playoff team, not many could’ve foreseen they’d be a potential lottery side.
But even though they’ve performed below expectations, this is a team that really didn’t have much hope at all this season.
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It makes the decision to re-sign general manager Rob Pelinka on the eve of the campaign all the more bizarre given the Lakers haven’t made the playoffs since that 2020 title run while adding no key pieces over the off-season to help turn things around.
But a lottery contender – clearly not the sort of contender you want to be – despite having a team built to win now is absolutely what the Lakers are right now, which is all the more concerning given James and Davis, who’ve struggled to stay healthy in recent years, are yet to miss any significant time this season.
Should either get struck down, things could get very, very ugly.
How many teams could you categorically say are worse than the Laker as constructed? Houston, Detroit … and maybe Orlando? Heck, Charlotte has a better record and didn’t have LaMelo Ball for the best part of a month.
It’s very possible LA finishes with a bottom five record.
Meanwhile, the Pelicans would be sitting there rubbing their hands together.
New Orleans has emerged as a dark horse to come out of the West this season behind one of the most talented cores in the league, led by Williamson and Brandon Ingram.
Willie Green’s side sits sixth in the West at 8-6, and even if they aren’t a bona fide contender this season, there’s no denying they have a bright future and could contender for silverware down the track.
Now, let’s say the Lakers finish with the fifth-worst record in the league (which is being kind based on where they currently sit), they’d have a 10.5 per cent chance of getting Pick 1 (and thus pass it onto the Pelicans).
Those odds increase to 14 per cent if they finish with a bottom three overall record, which, clearly, is a distinct possibility and the current predicament.
It’s also worth noting New Orleans own an unprotected first rounder from the Lakers in 2024, which can be pushed back to 2025 if it wishes.
According to NBA insider Marc Stein, the Lakers organisation is growing concerned its poor play this season could hand Wembanyama to the Pelicans on a silverware platter to form a scary big three alongside Williamson and Ingram.
“There is already a palpable fear inside (what I still like to call) Staples Center that the Purple & Gold are careening toward a draft in June in which the New Orleans Pelicans are gleefully positioned to swap picks with L.A. as a condition of the Anthony Davis blockbuster deal in July 2019,” via Marc Stein Substack.
Should the unthinkable indeed happen and Wembanyama ends up at New Orleans, it’d have to go down as one of the biggest front office blunders in league history — as worthwhile as the Davis trade seemed at the time.
The 7-foot-2 Wembanyama has looked as good as advertised so far, showing off incredible skills for an 18-year old in the French league this season.
The teenage phenom is the type of talent who could change a team’s fortunes and become it’s franchise cornerstone … which is exactly what the Lakers need right now with James in his twilight days.
In fact, it’s exactly the player the Lakers hoped Davis would become.
Davis’ future with the team is itself in question amid the possibility the Lakers could blow up their roster and trade the star centre to create just about the greatest irony imaginable.
It’s not known how seriously the Lakers have considered dealing Davis or if it’s merely a rumour, but it’s clear something has to change within the organisation.
Unlike Westbrook, dealing Davis would net the Lakers meaningful assets and return, and they wouldn’t have to surrender more draft capital with the player.
Given they currently don’t have their first rounder and face the possibility of handing Pick 1 to a budding powerhouse, off-loading more pick/s surely isn’t a path they’d want to go down — particularly given where they’re currently positioned.
Davis is also their most valuable asset, and considering they’re not winning games right now, nor do they look even close to being a playoff side … maybe trading Davis is their best play?
But in the bigger picture, the possibility of the Lakers losing both Davis, who cost them a king’s ransom, and Pick 1 (Wembanyama) in the space of three years is some sort of disaster scenario.
It creates a seriously nervous wait for the purple and gold in the lead into the 2023 draft lottery.