Three of California’s four NBA teams took the court Sunday at Staples Center, the midway points in their seasons behind them and issues that need solving ahead of them.
The Lakers need LeBron James back, a problem so big that only LeBron James could fix it. The Clippers defense needs to be rediscovered. And the Sacramento Kings? They need to recover after a six-game trip zapped them of some energy.
But as these teams move into February with different problems needing different solutions, they’re also all facing the same decision in one way or another. How much of their focus should be on what can lead to wins now and how much should be on what could lead to wins in the future?
It’s not just a fancy hypothetical. It’s something teams think about. A lot.
“Daily,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said.
With all three teams squarely in the mix for a playoff spot, the lure of winning now could pull them off their rebuild paths. Talk of adding players who could maybe help teams win a game or two down the stretch, undoubtedly a valuable thing, could mean parting with future assets.
James’ injury has pushed the Lakers outside of the top eight in the Western Conference, and his imminent return comes at a time when their schedule is about to get the toughest. Following Sunday’s win over the Phoenix Suns, 21 of their next 32 games are against teams currently in the top eight in their respective conference. Of the 11 games against teams not currently in the playoffs, eight are on the road.
While there’s not a lot of public panic about the Lakers’ playoff chances because of James, someone who hasn’t missed the postseason since his second year in the NBA, the schedule and the uncertainty around Lonzo Ball’s badly sprained ankle could have the Lakers in a position to act to ensure they don’t waste one of James’ seasons by finishing outside of the playoffs.
Trouble is, the Lakers have their hands tied. The team would undoubtedly need to part with a combination of some, if not all, of their best assets in order to trade for New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, a move, league sources indicate, that is much more likely to occur, if it occurs, in the summer than before the Feb. 7 trade deadline.
So to get an impact player at the deadline, they either need to unearth a bargain or settle for marginal improvement, the kind you get with a heavily protected first-round pick or unproven young player being sent out.
Or they have to sacrifice what they’ve planned for themselves down the road.
The Kings, strangely enough, have a similar dilemma.
“People didn’t expect us to be here,” Kings guard De’Aaron Fox said. “We might be a few years ahead of schedule. We’re just trying to go out there and win every game, continuing to grow.”
“You can’t do all of one and not the other,” Joerger said about focusing solely on making the playoffs or long-term team building. “We’re trying to be as competitive as possible, and that’s where most development happens. To compete, to be in the playoff race, our goal is to be in the playoffs. That’s what it is. But at the same time, our guys are doing a great job of working, and you can see the development and the growth of so many of our young guys.”
The Clippers are in a similar spot as the Kings, though their future is more tied to free agency than internal growth.
While rookies Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson, and two-way player Jonathan Motley received rotation minutes in Sunday’s win over the Kings, they didn’t come at the expense of a veteran player more equipped to help the team win.
While no one can say it publicly, it’s a not-so-secret truth around the Clippers that the team will do nothing to jeopardize their crack at free-agent-to-be Kawhi Leonard this summer. The team also has the resources to add a second player at a max contract, whether it be Kevin Durant or a lesser star.
And the Clippers’ front-office sources have long maintained that the team would not be seduced by winning or their playoff position in a way that would compromise their plans for next summer.
“The big-picture view has nothing to do with today,” coach Doc Rivers said of the day-to-day decisions. “For us, players could care less about the big-picture view. For us, we’re winning games. I don’t think anyone thinks, going into a game, about June, July or August.”
Rivers is right, the players and coaches shouldn’t be thinking about the summer. But the future will be the driving force behind the decisions the Clippers, Lakers and Kings make in the next two weeks.
And those decisions, good or bad, could decide if, and how many, of California’s NBA teams will taste the playoffs.