Lakers news now points to a full-on youth movement in Los Angeles, even if only for the next 15 games.
Following the team’s decision to bench two healthy veterans — 31-year-old small forward Luol Deng and 30-year-old center Timofey Mozgov — for the tail end of this NBA season, it has become more and more apparent that the struggling franchise has hopes of improving its standing come time for the draft.
Then came the Lakers’ decision to remove second-year guard D’Angelo Russell from his starting role as well.
“It’s cool,” said Russell of the move, according to the Ocean County Register. “It’s not a negative thing.”
The decision to scratch Deng and Mozgov from its lineup and Russell from his starting spot, ESPN recently noted, comes as part of a major team initiative to “give the majority of playing time over the final 15 games to their younger players.”
This Lakers news comes, strangely, not too long after Lakers coach Luke Walton was adamant that the team would not give up on competing to get better draft picks in the offseason.
“When you start losing on purpose I think the basketball gods come back to get you in the long run,” Walton told the L.A. Times back in January, according to Lakers Nation.
Still, it cannot hurt to give the Lakers’ draft strategy a shot in the arm by losing a little more. The Lakers currently sit at 15th overall in the Western Conference with a 20-47 record, which is the second-worst standing in the NBA.
It should also be noted the Lakers will only keep their first-round pick if it is a top-three selection, with the option otherwise going to Philadelphia. The Sixers acquired the pick in a trade with Phoenix, which originally received it as part of the team’s 2012 Steve Nash trade.
In other words, Los Angeles has a lot of incentive to continue to lose. Certainly, taking some of its experience off the court can only help reduce those numbers further.
When Deng and Mozgov signed as Lakers free agents last offseason with the Lakers, news sites indicated that their combined four-year, $136 million contracts would help the team turn around its recent-years woes and once again return to the playoffs.
Sadly for Los Angeles fans, Deng’s 7.6 points in 27 minutes and Mozgov’s 7.4 points and 21 minutes per game have hardly helped accomplish this task.
“Rather than play sporadically, sources told ESPN that Deng and Mozgov were comfortable with the decision to shut it down,” ESPN noted, “after meeting individually with coach Luke Walton over the past few weeks.”
Lakers news regarding the ultimate future of Deng and Mozgov, meanwhile, is still very much in the air. As both players are signed to long-term deals, it logically makes sense that the team wanted to scratch them this season only to get the first-round pick.
In other words, both men will likely be back for the Lakers next season.
This widely-held belief was essentially confirmed by the Lakers’ former G.M. Mitch Kupchak, who told the Los Angeles Times that the signing of Deng and Mozgov is “not something that’s evaluated in a half-season.”
“Let’s wait for or six years,” continued Kupchak, “look back on it and then we can say how our drafts went and how trades went and how free agency went.”
Lakers’ news that Deng and Mozgov could still be part of the team’s long-term plans — in spite of their apparent short-term benching — only confirms plans that team officials are now going all out to secure a top-three pick in this year’s draft.
The only way for the Lakers to do that, obviously, is by continuing to lose games. The easiest way to accomplish that, most experts feel, is to give its younger players more opportunity to gain experience now in spite of the games it may cost them.
And many feel that, should this goal be accomplished by the Lakers, news of a return to the playoffs down the line may be much more imminent than they currently appear.
[Featured Image by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images]