Why the Lakers handled NBA Draft the right away

The Lakers did not make a blockbuster trade on draft day but that was the right call, writes The Sporting Tribune's Mark Medina.

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Even before the NBA Draft started, a handful of teams made trades that fundamentally changed their identity. Once the NBA Draft started, the Lakers made moves the traditional way by using their draft picks to actually select a college prospect.

The Lakers used their No. 17 pick on Indiana freshman guard Jalen Hood-Schifino, a point guard that impressed the Lakers with his thoughtful job interview, his competitive pre-draft workout and his game footage that captured how he can add additional backcourt scoring and playmaking. After trading their No. 47 pick and $4 million to the Denver Nuggets for the No. 40 pick, the Lakers used that selection to draft Pepperdine sophomore forward Maxwell Lewis for his positional versatility as a 3-and-D player.

The Lakers didn’t package their picks together and other players together to secure an NBA lottery pick. The Lakers didn’t package those assets together to land a star either. And yet for a franchise that judges itself on if it can surpass the Boston Celtics for most NBA titles (17), the Lakers took the right approach in hopes to reach closer toward that destination.

“The end goal is for us to put a championship-level product on the court,” Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ vice president of basketball operations and general manager, told reporters. “Sometimes you can’t make all of your moves in one fell swoop. But we’re really excited about how the draft panned out.”

That’s because the Lakers made the best of what they had.

Unless they wanted to package LeBron James and Anthony Davis together in a trade, there was no way the Lakers could make a blockbuster trade. They only have James, Davis and Max Christie under contract, giving them few assets to actually make anyone else available. Even if they packaged their picks with expiring contracts to Mo Bamba and Malik Beasley, the Lakers wouldn’t have landed anything significant. Perhaps the Lakers could have acquired veteran guard Chris Paul with those assets, but the Golden State Warriors had much more to offer by trading a promising albeit inconsistent young guard (Jordan Poole), second-year player Ryan Rollins, a protected 2030 first-round pick and a 2027 second-round pick.

The Lakers would have been better off avoiding Paul, anyway. Even if Paul had taken a reduced role off the bench, the Lakers would lack any assets needed to make any possible moves in free agency. The Lakers would also have become more vulnerable relying on an accomplished player avoiding major injuries when they already have concerns on how James and Davis will stay durable.

Yes, drafting a middle first-round pick and a late second-round pick aren’t exactly game-changing moves for a team trying to keep its championship window open entering James’ 21st NBA season. Hood-Schifino may have impressed the Lakers with insight from Indiana coach Mike Woodson about his disciplined dieting and training habits, his ability to defend backcourt players and how Kobe Bryant inspired him. Lewis may have excited the Lakers for his strong outside shooting and perimeter defense. But it’s unlikely they are ready enough to play significant minutes.

Yet, it’s necessary to look at these moves as a precursor toward what the Lakers hope to accomplish in free agency. It gives them additional assets to add in potential deals. It gives them insurance policy in case D’Angelo Russell attracts too expensive of an offer or if the Lakers deal him in a sign-and-trade. It gives the Lakers some roster balance to complement Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura, both of whom are expected to receive strong offers to stay as restricted free agents.

What about if the Lakers mostly retain most of their roster? That’s okay, too.

They advanced to the Western Conference Finals, after all. Though the Lakers lost in a four-game sweep to the Denver Nuggets, that outcome had to do with reasons unrelated to fundamental roster flaws. One, the Nuggets eventually won the NBA title because they boasted the league’s best duo (Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray), depth and continuity. Second, the Lakers eventually looked exhausted after spending half of the season playing every contest like a Game 7 just to secure a spot in the play-in tournament. Though Father Time won’t be any kinder to James or Davis, they will at least enter the 2022-23 campaign more refreshed. They also won’t begin next season with such a poor start as they did with Russell Westbrook as the third star. They would have a team that finished with the NBA’s third-best record after the trade deadline and one of the best defensive teams in the league.

That doesn’t mean the Lakers are definitely standing pat. They are mindful of Russell’s post-season struggles. They are aware it’s possible to make a key signing while still maintaining relative continuity. They plan to be aggressive during a period that other teams already have made seismic deals.

That wasn’t realistic for the Lakers to make such significant moves leading into Draft night. Instead, the Lakers positioned their pieces on the chessboard in hopes to increase their odds of making more consequential signings once free agency begins.

Mark Medina covers the Lakers & Clippers for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.