Lakers or Sixers? Not even a question now, and the lack of a plan in L.A. is startling
L.A. is falling far behind teams like fast-rising Philadelphia in the NBA rebuilding game
LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers' troubles have come to this: A four-year-old basketball parlor game here in L.A. -- in the task of NBA rebuilds, who would you rather be, the Lakers or the Sixers? -- no longer applies.
That question has been asked and answered by time, mistakes and two vastly different processes.
The Philadelphia 76ers don't only have a bright future. They've embarked on it, and through Thursday's games were only three games back in the loss column for the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot. The Lakers, meanwhile, have the second-worst record in the league. It's ugly stuff.
For Philly, much of this hinges on the emergence of Joel Embiid, the injury-plagued big man they snagged out of Kansas with the No. 3 overall pick in 2014. He has become one of the game's most riveting and impactful young players, averaging 20 points and eight rebounds and imbuing his team with some much-needed swagger and confidence.
The Sixers have won eight of 10 games, including the past two without Embiid. They have seven players averaging nearly 10 points, including three players 22 years old or younger -- Embiid, Dario Saric and Jahlil Okafor.
They had a plan -- the Sam Hinkie-run process -- and it worked. Years of losses. Embarrassment. Recriminations. Frustration. And now, despite and because of those low moments, a real and exciting future. They're probably not a playoff team this season, but they are turning that corner right now. And all this comes before adding 2016 No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons, whose injury-induced absence this season hasn't obscured the fact he might end up being his team's best pro.
The Lakers are a different story. Here in the land of Hollywood and superstars, at least, there was always the notion that Los Angeles could look out over the landscape of NBA teams trying to pull themselves out of the gutter and take pleasure in the fact that at least L.A. was ahead of teams like Philly or Minnesota, while also retaining a shot at relevance thanks to Kobe Bryant and on organizational balancing act.
That was fool's gold, with Lakers purple mixed in.
In giving Kobe an obscene two-year goodbye present, the Lakers stalled the development of their young players and never could make a clear choice in the front office or with a coach to turn the pain into a clear plan.
Luke Walton is a great hire, but he's finding out right now hard this job is going to be. Last Sunday, he and his team suffered the worst loss in franchise history, a 49-point beatdown against a Dallas Mavericks team that has one of the league's worst records.
It is no secret D'Angelo Russell hasn't become the breakout point guard the Lakers hoped for when they took him No. 2 overall in the 2015 draft. His apparent lack of leadership is troubling. There is a rising sense in Lakers circles that he's incapable of bringing this young group together with the kind of approach and chemistry you need from that position.
Brandon Ingram is a project -- I think a very worthy one -- who shows flashes of greatness one day and then pulls a David Copperfield disappearing act the next. Timofey Mozgov was a head-scratcher of a signing, particularly given the up-tempo style Walton was expected to run. There are interesting and promising pieces, with Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and even Larry Nance Jr., but this team isn't even close.
There's a simple solution. Have a plan, and stick to it. The Sixers did, even if they didn't stick to the man who executed it, and here they are, bursting with talent and a real rising threat over the next year or two in the East.
The Lakers need to come up with a plan. Check that. The Lakers need to follow the one they've already laid out.
Jim Buss, scion of the late and great Dr. Jerry Buss, runs basketball operations and under his guidance this team has been a disaster. I would write here he has to go, but he has already made the point for me. He has said repeatedly that if the Lakers aren't contenders this season -- championship contenders, folks -- he would step away.
His sister Jeanie runs the whole Lakers show and has the power to remove her sibling and take the helm of basketball ops, or put someone else in place. She told me last year, along with a lot of other L.A. media, that she would do so if at the end of this 2016-17 season the Lakers hadn't made huge progress.
In our conversation, she was clear 2017 couldn't just end with a Lakers playoff appearance. They had to contend in the playoffs, too, making at least a semi-deep run.
So stick to the plan. Jim Buss has to go. Jeanie Buss has to take over. And then the Lakers can finally start playing catch-up against teams like the Sixers that are now years ahead of them.
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