There was a time when Andrew Bynum was something other than a bowling injury tricked out with a bizarre Afro.
There was a time, eight years ago now, when he was a meaningful draft pick, No. 10 overall, the Lakers’ selection after their worst season of the past 20 years.
Mitch Kupchak and company settled on the 17-year-old big man that June, and in doing so, they got something of a steal; of the nine players selected before Bynum, only two have been All-Stars: Chris Paul and Deron Williams. The top 10 that year was dotted with names like Raymond Felton, Martell Webster, Channing Frye and Ike Diogu (it’s OK, I don’t remember him either), and then at No. 10, the Lakers found Bynum.
It’s easy to forget now — Julius Erving calls the trade that sent Bynum to Philadelphia last summer a “bad deal” and the center languishes, injured and uncertain — but that was a good pick. A really good one.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Bynum transformed the Lakers franchise, but he was a key player on the great teams of 2007-10. It’s hard to say where they’d have finished had they not drafted him that year, but it’s also hard to imagine they wouldn’t have been just a little bit worse.
Now, nearly a decade later, and the Lakers just wrapped up their worst season since that 2004-05 campaign.
They barely made the playoffs in 2012-13, finishing with a record that earned them the 19th pick in the draft — had they not dumped their first-round pick in the Steve Nash trade last summer, the Lakers may have been selecting at No. 30.
In a particularly weak draft, pick No. 19 isn’t worth too much. It will likely land the Cavaliers a player the likes of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Gorgui Deng, hardly someone who will transform a franchise. Even so, there would have been some value to the Lakers drafting a player of that ilk:
He’d be cheap.
He’d have the possibility for untapped potential.
He’d fill a roster spot that it might be otherwise difficult to fill with the salary constraints the team faces.
But what’s done is done. Barring the Lakers trading up in the draft, pick No. 48 will come to Los Angeles with a lower chance of panning out than would pick No. 19.
Here’s a look at who’s gone 48th in recent years: Kostas Papanikolaou, Keith Benson, Latavious Williams, Taylor Griffin, Malik Hairston. I’d keep going, but you get the picture. Granted, there have been some late-round successes in the past five years — Goran Dragic (No. 45 in 2008), Danny Green (No. 46 in 2009) and Isaiah Thomas (No. 60 in 2011) — but the odds aren’t good, especially when one accounts for the fact that so many of these successful late picks have some affiliation with the Spurs. (Of course they do.)
So no, the draft will not be a viable building block this June for the Lakers as they currently stand. It’s easy to simply accept that and say that what’s done is done, and so let’s move on, but in this situation, it’s not quite so simple. Not when this has been the Lakers’ M.O. for years, when Bynum was their last meaningful pick, when the last Lakers first-round pick to put on the purple and gold was Javaris Crittenton in 2007.
This isn’t an aberration. It’s a trend. And in the modern NBA, it may not be a sustainable one.
Building through the draft is tricky, of course, and there is such a thing as too many picks. But on Thursday morning, just hours before the homegrown Spurs defeated the not-so-homegrown Heat, NBA superfan Jimmy Goldstein tweeted from Miami: “I prefer teams made of draft picks over teams made of free agents.” It was a simple statement, but one worth pondering, and though it might not be true in the most rigid and universal of senses, it holds some value.
A team can’t be built solely through the draft. That’s simply not sustainable. It can, in theory, be built solely through free agents, but the days in which that was an easy coup are behind us. As luxury tax penalties begin to kick in in the sharpest way, draft picks become ever more valuable in their cheapness. Add in the inherent worth of building a system and culture, rather than just a team, and the draft, with all of its randomness and unpredictability, seems like a plenty worthwhile way to build.
That’s not to say every team should keep its draft pick every year. Sometimes a team has to throw in a pick or two to cement a deal, and that’s fine. Sometimes a team has a preponderance of first-round picks, which though not ideal, can also be fine. (Unless, of course, you’re former Timberwolves’ GM David Kahn, and you pick three point guards over the course of 13 picks while still failing to pick the best point guard available in that group.) What’s true in all of this is that the draft is what it is for a reason, and as much as critics can rail against the randomness of youth, it works.
In the course of their history in both Minneapolis and Los Angeles, the Lakers have drafted seven Hall of Famers, the most recent being James Worthy, who was the No. 1 pick in 1982. Kobe Bryant, whom the team traded for five days after the 1996 draft, will surely join that list, and perhaps Vlade Divac, as well. But since Bryant, all of the team’s biggest names — apart from Bynum — have come to it through trades and signings, which, if you think about it, is pretty rare. It’s been almost two decades, after all.
Over time, the Lakers have moved further and further away from using their first-round picks. From 1970-79, they had 12; from 1980-89, seven; from 1990-99, seven; and from 2000-09, six. Since 2010, they’ve had not a one. However, the decade that saw the team’s highest winning percentage, the 1980s, corresponded with the peak of perhaps the greatest Laker draft pick of all time, Magic Johnson. In addition, from 1980-89 the team drafted seven players in the first round and four in the second, bringing in names like Worthy, whose rights they attained in a trade, A.C. Green and Divac.
Not a bad decade. Not a bad draft record, either.
It’s hard to say whether keeping picks now could result in a similar haul of talent, or even in the help the Lakers need. So much of it is luck, and for all anyone knew, Worthy, Green and Divac could have all been busts, and those five championships in the ’80s could all belong to the Celtics. Risks can pay off, though, especially the lower risks of first-round picks, and sometimes, they’re worth taking.
At this point, there’s very little the Lakers can do in the near term. They’ve already dealt away their first-round picks this year and in 2015 for Steve Nash, and maybe if Nash were eight years younger, this wouldn’t even be a conversation. But the picks are gone, and Nash is old, and it is.
Maybe the Lakers won’t be a major player in a draft in the near future, and that’s fine. That’ll likely mean they haven’t completely tanked in this rebuild. But perhaps they should at least be a player in some form, at least every once in a while. It’s a whole lot easier than spending a summer begging a fussy superstar to re-sign, and even though the payoff isn’t nearly as large or certain, not everyone on a team needs to be a fussy superstar.