Like many residents of Los Angeles, the Lakers are probably looking forward to that very first swim of the summer. The searing temperatures of June and July almost guarantee it.
As they float in their respective pools, cupping water in their palms, their attention will eventually move upward. The clouds sidling up to each other, casting shadows in the shallow end until they gradually dissipate. The team should appreciate this moment of refuge. Zen, even. Because like every summer day before and after it, the mirage of carefreeness will fleet. A nestling sunburn the only reminder of a simpler time.
This reality has likely already set in for the Lakers. The offseason, where the sins of their woeful campaign will be accounted for, looms large. A critical inflection point they need to swimmingly navigate in order to right their ship back towards contention.
The Lakers’ crossroads ultimately comes down to a question of time, or more specifically, the tense they choose to operate within.
Does the team opt to embrace the present? To take a final dash towards a title window that may be closing, but is still ajar enough for the likes of LeBron James and Anthony Davis to potentially squeeze through?
Or, does the organization look ahead and protect a future that does not contain James, and perhaps Davis as well?
Regardless of the route they take, a singular road needs to be followed to get there. Meandering in the middle, and tip-toeing in the short and long term has historically led to mediocrity in both. Even if they whiff in the path they choose, choosing at all will have been the better approach than being focused on two tasks and mastering neither, stuck in the depths of basketball limbo.
It starts this summer, where the Lakers need to find their way out of the deep end before the pool is emptied and all they’re left holding is their inner tube and unresolved mistakes.
The first order of business, and an indicator of which direction the team is leaning, is finding a new head coach. Multiple reports have boiled down the search thus far to three names: Terry Stotts, Kenny Atkinson and Darwin Ham.
Stotts is the epitome of short-term stopgap. This is not meant as a slight. He has the experience and the feather in his cap that’s he coached star talent in past. Most notably, in Portland, helping Damian Lillard get to multiple playoff berths in a league where that’s easier said than done.
He makes sense if the Lakers are thinking only about the next few seasons, which they might be. Stotts would not be the sexiest of hires, and although there’s a legitimate concern his helm would put the team in neutral instead of propelling them forward, they may prefer safe to variance.
Atkinson ultimately falls in a similar short-term mold, with a slight nudging eye toward the future.
He earned near-universal praise for his development of the scrappy years of Nets right up until they went star hunting. His departure, in conjunction with the team’s pursuit of a championship, might not bode well in terms of convincing ownership of his ability to earn veteran buy-in. However, he has shown the ability to lead a fiery bunch before once they’ve been on board, something the Lakers need after sleepwalking through the year.
At 48, Ham is not only the youngest of the final candidates, but also the least experienced (this would be his first head coaching opportunity at the professional level). Stotts, on the other hand, has 13 years of reps under his belt. Atkinson coached the Nets for four seasons.
But despite his resume being on the thinner side compared to the others, Ham has reportedly made the “strongest impression” during the initial round of interviews, and may even have the much-coveted stamp of approval from James himself.
If being viewed through the lens of where Ham would lie within the short or long-term direction, he may prove to be the rare exception to the rule.
Although he has the makeup of what a rebuilding team would covet: young, passionate and ample room to grow alongside his players, Ham also sports recent championship pedigree and enough of the type of firm voice and presence that a veteran-led team like the Lakers has openly been in the market for.
The team may be splitting the difference with Ham, but he’s a home-run swing of a candidate in a market featuring few such candidates. Not only does he offer the most upside, but has enough aligning attributes with the present to justify the hiring.
Outside of a new head coach, the Lakers will also need to determine how they address the Russell Westbrook-sized elephant in the room.
There is no secret that last season’s experiment with the polarizing point guard flopped for a myriad of reasons. Because of this, it is in both parties’ best interest if they go their separate ways. The team’s threshold in terms of meeting the demands of potential trade partners may prevent it from happening.
It was recently reported by The Athletic that the Lakers have “no intention of using a first-round pick to facilitate a Westbrook trade.” This came on the heels of a previous report that the team has not ruled out anything when it comes to Westbrook’s future with the team, including a return next season.
Whether or not this is just posturing or the Lakers simply trying to regain leverage in future negotiations is unknown, but, if the reports are taken at face value, then this is the clearest example of a team at a crossroads with itself.
Regardless of what happens with James in the years to come, he will be on the team next season, putting the emphasis on the front office to win now.
The first step in doing so rests on trading Westbrook, and hopefully in return, acquiring players that better fit around James and Davis’ skillsets. However, a first-round draft pick or two may be needed to accomplish this. The team’s potential resistance in doing so would not only go in direct opposition to the short term, but cement a ceiling over James’ twilight.
If this turns out to not be the case, and the Lakers do part ways with their draft picks in order to constitute a Westbrook swap, this only further hinders a future already starved of rebuilding tools.
And even if the Lakers are able to find a suitable trade partner that nets players better equipped to help the team win now, this still doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen. Given the financial limitations at their disposal, and their aforementioned lack of picks, the squad may still be on the outside looking-when it comes to the upper echelon in the league. A prospect that would only magnify their miscalculation and the assets lost to orchestrate it.
The Lakers’ choices will have consequences, and there are no guarantees. A butterfly effect will ripple through their existence, shaping what happens now and in the future.
Regardless of the direction the team takes, a singular aim gives them their best shot. They do not have the resources to double-dip into both time stamps, and the quicker they learn that, the sooner they can make progress on one or the other.
Other teams have found the balance of rebuilding and winning simultaneously before.
The Spurs of old may be the best example of this through their legendary stability and discipline. And the Warriors most recently, with their pinpoint drafting and clever tinkering around the margins. A near-perfect alchemy that others have strived to replicate. But for every success story, there are dozens of others that have failed.
History has shown that serving two masters can result in failing both. One step too many in either direction of the tightrope can cause an immediate imbalance strong enough to send a team spiraling down. And only after enough years have passed, can they climb onto that catwalk and test their hand at fate once again.
Summer is almost here. And soon, the Lakers will start their ascend, quietly asking themselves after each rung a question whose answer has the power to change everything:
Which way do I go?