Lottery luck saves Lakers from losing multiple picks

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

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14. 5. 3. 12.

Those four integers saved not one Los Angeles Lakers draft, but two.

Attendees at the 2017 NBA Draft Lottery, held Tuesday night in Manhattan, always have a lot riding on a few pingpong balls in a hopper, but for the Lakers’ brass, the evening carried even more intense stakes. Because of protections on picks owed as part of past trades, a backward bounce could have cost them two first-rounders.

In 2012, the Lakers spent two picks to acquire two-time MVP point guard Steve Nash from Phoenix. The second of those two picks, later conveyed to Philadelphia in a separate deal, was still in play due to protections negotiated at the time of the original trade. Because of those same protections, the Lakers had a right to keep the pick only if it fell within the top 3 — meaning the Lakers had to be one of the three teams to have their assigned number combinations drawn in a private ceremony held 90 minutes before the televised version. Teams not drawn in that room were slotted fourth through 14th in reverse record order, but for L.A., that would have meant letting the Sixers make their pick.

Incoming team President Magic Johnson started the evening not knowing if he’d come away from Midtown with a pick at all. He ended the evening fantasizing about drafting the next Laker legend.

“When we knew we could keep our top 3, I was very happy,” Johnson told NBA TV’s Jared Greenberg. “So when that fourth team was called, I said, OK we’re good, no matter what happens.”

The Lakers still owe a pick to Philadelphia, but it will be conveyed next year instead. That timing works much better for the hapless Hollywood club that just concluded a 26-win season. The Lakers need an infusion of talent sooner rather than later, and their third-worst record granted them only a 46.9 percent chance of keeping the pick. Luckily for Magic, fortune smiled. L.A. also owns the №28 pick, acquired from Houston in exchange for Lou Williams in February.

“We just have to build on the other young talent we have already, add to that young talent,” Johnson said. “Now we have the two and 28 picks, so we’re going to be OK. We’re going to add two good players to our team.”

The other first-rounder saved by the lucky bounce of pingpong balls is their 2019 pick. They had dealt that one to Orlando in the Dwight Howard trade, but a provision prohibiting trading consecutive years’ picks kept pushing that obligation back. The 2019 draft was Orlando’s last chance to cash in on a first before the debt converted to a pair of second-rounders. The delay on the Philly conveyance until 2018 now means the Lakers can’t trade the 2019 first — so they’ll keep that one too.

The Lakers are hoping by the time that 2019 pick hits, they will have been able to climb out of the lottery anyway. Johnson said the pick gives them the flexibility to explore the “different scenarios” available, with cap space, multiple picks and some interesting young players. That’s pretty standard executive speak for, “We’ll look at our options.” Johnson embraced the cliché when he added a moment later: “See what’s best for the Lakers.”

AP Photo/Nick Ut

What’s best for the Lakers is probably to make that pick for the franchise. Few attainable stars are good enough to immediately move the needle for a squad that lost nearly 70 percent of its games last season. Betting long on a kid with potential to develop on the same timeline as the club’s other recent lottery picks gives the Purple and Gold a better chance of restoring some of the cachet of yesteryear.

Furthermore, the Lake Show doesn’t really need to attach its pick to a trade to bring back a star when it can acquire a star outright using its cap space. Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka can create close to $30 million in room under the salary cap — if Nick Young opts out and they dismiss Tarik Black before July 4. That’s enough to offer a max salary to a younger star player, and almost enough to clear the max for a seven- to nine-year veteran as well. Of course, there’s no telling if any top-tier free agents are willing to sign on for what could be a protracted rebuild, but Johnson thinks he’ll have a chance to lay out the case based on the prestige and legacy of the Lakers.

“This is a great franchise, it’s a winning franchise, and it’s going to be a winning franchise again,” he said.

Should the Lakers keep the pick, they’ll likely choose from one-and-done college stars such as Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum, De’Aaron Fox and Josh Jackson. Washington star Markelle Fultz is likely to land in Boston via the top pick, and that leaves L.A. with a group of intriguing but raw prospects (many figure Ball will be the pick). It’s possible none would make a significant impact immediately — few modern rookies do anyway.

That’s OK. Whoever winds up in Lakers yellow will have a chance to grow up on a similar timeline to Brandon Ingram, D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance Jr. and Julius Randle, or whatever subset of that gang is part of Johnson and Pelinka’s long-term vision. They also have Jordan Clarkson locked in on a reasonable contract — he’s interesting both for basketball reasons and as an asset. They also have a few veterans who could fetch some interest, and rookie big man Ivica Zubac has left a favorable impression at times.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that none of the players rattled off in that paragraph will ever reach transcendental status. Ingram may have the highest realistic ceiling out of that gang, and he’s no sure bet, especially after a season with a single-digit PER (8.5), a negative Value Over Replacement Player (-1.1) and a true shooting rate that left points on the table after the average Ingram shooting possession.

This pick — along with whatever star they can lure to Hollywood — represents what could be the Lakers’ best chance at adding an all-league talent to a roster of maybes. Even that involves banking on the low odds of a 19-year-old hitting his best-case scenario. Most executives, though, would gladly take on the anxiety of waiting to see if their possible franchise player ever realized his potential.

It will take some good fortune, but it finally feels as though the Lakers know a little something about that too.