In recent years, NBA draft nights at the Lakers’ practice facility have been anticlimactic.
Only a few reporters who regularly cover the Lakers watch the draft proceedings on a large projector screen. No need for reporters to fight for a good angle to place their tape recorder as they interview the new draft prospect. Those interviews are done by speaker phone. Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak usually talks with the media, but very little is learned about what the draft prospect could provide for the Lakers, given they are late second-round draft picks.
A similar scene probably will play out Thursday. The Lakers’ lone pick in this year’s draft is the last one (60th overall).
However, after years of success, the Lakers have more of a vested interest this time around. After falling short in the Western Conference semifinals for the second consecutive year, and with an aging roster and more punitive penalties from the new labor deal, the Lakers are under a lot of pressure to build their team through quality draft picks. Unless the Lakers make a trade before the draft, however, that won’t happen.
But don’t blame the Lakers’ front office for a lack of draft picks this time around. It became part of the necessary formula to ensure acquiring enough pieces to secure a championship.
Many Lakers fans, as well as Kobe Bryant, praised Kupchak when he acquired Pau Gasol from Memphis in February 2008. That move that ensured three consecutive NBA Finals appearances and two consecutive titles. The giddiness also partly stemmed from the idea the Lakers suddenly became a contender while also ridding themselves of Kwame Brown. The move, however, also required Kupchak to send Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, the draft rights to Marc Gasol and first-round draft picks for 2008 and 2010.
The Lakers’ calculation in trading away first-round picks in future deals didn’t yield as much.
In a move that saved them millions in salary and luxury taxes, the Lakers traded Sasha Vujacic and a 2011 first-round draft pick to New Jersey in December 2010 as part of a three-team trade that brought veteran forward Joe Smith to the Lakers. The Lakers’ hopes that Smith could give Andrew Bynum and Gasol some extra rest backfired. Smith remained a non-factor. But the move itself made sense. Vujacic was making $5.5 million, while Smith only earned $1.4 million.
Vujacic also showed no signs of progressing since posting an impressive 8.8 points on 45.4% shooting in the 2007-08 season. The clutch shots he made in practice hardly translated into games, in which he always wanted to jam 20 minutes worth of production into a five-minute span. His hustle in practice sparked more annoyance on the court, where his emotions altered his focus and alienated his teammates. And Vujacic inappropriately channeled his hunger by fretting over small stuff, leading into arguments with coaches and teammates.
The Lakers also sacrificed first-round picks this year, by acquiring Ramon Sessions from Cleveland while giving away Luke Walton’s horrific contract, Jason Kapono’s inconsistent shooting, more than $1-million cash and a first-round pick.
It’s a move the Lakers needed to make considering their overwhelming need at point guard and the opportunity to rid themselves of Walton’s contract. Sessions didn’t exactly pan out as expected, but very few could have predicted that after his amazing first impression.
The other trade move? Even if Kupchak contends this move was part of one big deal, it was unnecessary. They rid themselves of Derek Fisher, insistent he may not have handled a reduced role well and create an awkward locker room. They threw in the first-round pick they got from Dallas in the Lamar Odom trade for the deal for Jordan Hill. Even if the Lakers forward became a pleasant surprise, Fisher’s absent leadership and the lack of a first-round pick puts the Lakers in a rough spot.
As the Lakers mull over their 60th pick, the brass may wish they had those earlier selections at their disposal. Had they kept them, though, it’s probable the Lakers couldn’t secure enough pieces to complete their championship puzzle.