Despite their long, storied history that is filled with winning seasons and championships, the Los Angeles Lakers are not a good basketball team right now. Kobe Bryant, their top gun for nearly the last two decades, is not anywhere near the player he once was, and the rest of the team is a curious mish-mosh of veterans who don’t really fit together and young players with potential.
Last season, Jordan Clarkson was a pleasant surprise for the Lakers – after being a second round pick, Clarkson played well, even garnering a little bit of consideration for Rookie of the Year due to a rookie class decimated by injuries. One of those rookies who was hurt, Julius Randle, was the Lakers’ crown jewel of the 2014 draft, but he broke his leg on opening night and missed the season. However, he has been playing well in his return to the court this year, another encouraging sign for the Lakers.
The Lakers’ fortunes seemed to turn in May when, after finishing the season with the fourth-worst record in the league, they found lottery luck and jumped up to the #2 pick in the draft. With a few exceptions, the top two prospects on analysts’ boards were Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor, big men out of Kentucky and Duke, respectively.
With two potentially elite centers available, and the Lakers having a glaring hole in the middle, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that they would select whichever of the two the Minnesota Timberwolves did not pick with the first overall selection. After all, the Lakers have had a historic collection of big men in their history, from Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O’Neal and Pau Gasol, to name a few. If all worked out, Towns or Okafor would be the next name on the list.
After Minnesota picked Towns first overall, the Lakers surprised many and picked D’Angelo Russell, a dynamic and flashy point-combo guard out of Ohio State, leaving Okafor on the board for the Philadelphia 76ers to snatch him with the third pick. The Lakers felt that Russell would flourish under Byron Scott, just as three other top rookie point guards he coached in his career did. Those point guards were Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, and Kyrie Irving, and they each turned out alright to say the least.
However, ten games into the season, the Lakers sit at just 2-8, and while Towns and Okafor have both looked great, Russell has struggled. While it may be partially because he just isn’t as good as many pundits thought, the main reason is the Lakers’ criminal mishandling of Russell thus far this season.
Other than a washed-up Kobe Bryant, the Lakers employ the likes of Lou Williams, Nick Young, Roy Hibbert, and Brandon Bass – all can be role players on good teams (as long as they buy in and don’t take ridiculous shots, in the case of Williams and Young at least), but are hardly the makings of the rotation of a good NBA team. And since this is just the second NBA season for Clarkson and the first real NBA experience for Randle, the Lakers were never going to be a good team this year.
Naturally, knowing you likely won’t be a good team means you should probably focus on the development of your young talent instead of trying to win 27 games instead of 22, right?
The Lakers have repeatedly baffled the media, fans, and generally everyone outside of their organization by prioritizing winning over development, which they haven’t even done successfully. Instead of giving quality minutes to D’Angelo Russell at the end of close games, Byron Scott has given minutes to Lou Williams and Nick Young, citing their “experience” as the main reason. There even was a game where Russell sat the entire fourth quarter for no apparent reason. Scott has said Russell needs to earn his time and that they were being patient with his development – which he said they were stressing over wins. His actions and allocation of minutes show the exact opposite agenda of what he has said to the media. This is unacceptable for the Lakers’ organization, and if I were the Lakers’ owner or general manager, I would view this as a fire-able offense for Scott – if the losing itself isn’t one in the first place.
Sure, Russell may not be setting the world on fire when he has been playing, but it’s not as if Bryant, Young, or Williams have been all that great either. At least Russell’s struggles now, while playing on a bad team with virtually no chance for a playoff spot, will help his development and growth going forward. The absolute worst thing that Lakers can do is stunt Russell’s development in the pursuit of meaningless wins (they also owe their 2016 first round pick, top 3 protected, to Philadelphia, giving them all the more incentive to finish with a lousy record this year).
While Towns and Okafor have made this prediction look bad so far, I personally believed before the draft that Russell would become the best player in his draft class. At his best, his combination of size, skill, and athleticism make him the real deal with few holes in his game. In a guard driven league, Russell has all the tools to become one of the best. He has not lived up to expectations so far, but the Lakers have not done him any favors.
It has been proven, time and time again, that the best way to develop a young player on a bad team is to give him relatively free reign to make mistakes and learn from them. Look no further than Andrew Wiggins, who struggled early in his rookie year in Minnesota, but improved drastically as the year went on, in large part because of the countless opportunities he received. Russell has not gotten those opportunities thus far, and while there is still time for that to change, this will undoubtedly affect his growth if it continues.
The Lakers’ are severely mishandling the D’Aneglo Russell situation, and if they don’t fix it soon, they will regret it for a very long time.