The Long, Strange Journey of the Lakers’ 2018 1st Round Pick
Remember Steve Nash? The two-time MVP’s impact is still being felt around the NBA, and it’s not just because the up-tempo style of play his teams deployed has become en vogue with the league. A potential top pick could be going to one of two divisional foes who just met in the Eastern Conference Semifinal, two young teams built to win for the foreseeable future. Depending on how the ping pong balls bounce during Tuesday’s NBA Draft Lottery, Danny Ainge and Bryan Colangelo might want to send Steve Nash Christmas cards going forward.
Go back to the Summer of 2012. The Lakers were trying to become Somebody That We Used To Know by contending for another ring before their window with Kobe Bryant closed. After David Stern vetoed a trade that would have landed Chris Paul, Los Angeles decided to make a splash in the trade market by going after Steve Nash and then Dwight Howard. Howard was acquired in a multiplayer, four-team deal, while Nash came to La La Land in a sign-and-trade between the Lakers and the Phoenix Suns. Los Angeles acquired Nash for first round draft picks in 2013 and 2015, second round draft picks 2013 and 2014, and a new contract for three years, $27 million.
The move and the 2012-2013 season turned out to be a disaster for the Lakers, as Nash stayed hurt, Bryant tore his Achilles in the midst of the playoff run down the stretch, and Howard left for Houston after just one year in Purple and Gold. The Lakers had given up a lot of capital for one failed season that was marred by injuries and they ended up being swept out of the first round by the Spurs as the seven-seed. The deal for Howard did not hurt the Lakers too much in the long run, as Andrew Bynum, the centerpiece of the Lakers’ outgoing players, was never productive after the move. The Nash deal was the killer. Not only was he constantly injured and completely unproductive as a Laker, but his salary saddled them during free agency for a couple years, and the draft picks proved to be more valuable than the Lakers realized.
The 2013 first rounder had originated with the Miami Heat in the sign-and trade for LeBron James with Cleveland. Cleveland gained the rights to swap their lowest first round pick in 2013 with LA in a deal involving Lakers’ head coach Luke Walton, so when they swapped with the Lakers, LA had the 30th pick in the 2013 draft. Phoenix used this pick to select Nemanja Nedovic, who was traded to Golden State for Archie Goodwin and Malcolm Lee. The 2013 second rounder had originated with Denver, who traded the pick to the Lakers in exchange for their 2011 second rounder. The Lakers traded it to Phoenix, and Phoenix selected Alex Oriahaki with the 57th pick of the draft. Phoenix later traded him in a sign and trade for current Laker and soon-to-be free agent Isaiah Thomas. The 2014 second rounder Phoenix received was later dealt in two three-team deals and was eventually used to pick Johnny O’Bryant with the 36 pick of the draft by Milwaukee.
The 2015 first rounder ended up being the best pick in the deal. It had top-five protection in 2015 and top-three protection in 2016 and 2017. Phoenix decided to trade the pick like the rest of the picks they had gotten in return for Nash in a 3-way deal among the Suns, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee. Phoenix shipped the selection to Philadelphia, while sending current Laker Tyler Ennis and Miles Plumlee to Milwaukee. In return, the Suns got Brandon Knight and former Laker Kendall Marshall, while the Bucks received Michael Carter Williams from the 76ers. In effect, the Suns gave a potential top 10 pick for Brandon Knight and Kendall Marshall, while the 76ers trusted the process and remained in tank mode.
When the Nash trade was made, Lakers’ brass probably wasn’t very worried about giving up a high pick. After all, the Lakers had always reloaded, and they had just built what was a Super Team on paper. Kobe never recovered from the Achilles, and the Lakers’ roster had collapsed with him. They officially entered tank mode in 2013-2014 and were still there when the 2014-2015 season ended. The ping pong balls were kind for LA, as the Lakers ended up protecting the pick in 2015 and drafting D’Angelo Russell with the second pick overall. Russell was traded last year along with Timofey Mozgov’s contract in a deal that netted Brook Lopez and All-Rookie Kyle Kuzma from Brooklyn.
2015-2016 played out much the same, as the Lakers’ suffered a franchise-worst record in Kobe’s swan song, going 17-65 and once again securing the second pick of the draft. The Lakers drafted Brandon Ingram, who has made some strides and figures to feature heavily on the Lakers going forward or serve as big bait if the Lakers choose to go all in on a big trade. 2016-2017 saw improvement, as the Lakers’ record improved by nine games, but the Lakers still retained their pick. In fact, since they kept the pick through 2017, that conveyed a first round pick the Lakers had sent Orlando for Dwight Howard into two second rounders. The Magic used the first of those picks to draft Wesley Iwundu with the 33rd pick of last year’s draft, while the second will be used this year. The Lakers were sandwiched in between Boston at number one and Philadelphia at number three, as the second pick would be putting on a Lakers’ hat once again on draft night.
The Celtics had the top pick in the draft after finishing first in the East in the regular season due to the blockbuster trade that had sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn in 2013. The consensus top prospect in the draft was Markelle Fultz, but the Celtics were in a selling mood as they already had a team built to contend, and they had the assets and cap space to make some big moves, later adding Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving in the Summer. The 76ers saw an opportunity to draft who they thought was the best prospect in the draft in Fultz.
The Sixers traded the third overall pick and the Lakers’ 2018 first rounder to Boston in exchange for the first pick overall in 2017. Philadelphia selected Fultz, who had one of the strangest rookie years in memory and spent most of the year in street clothes. The Celtics selected Jayson Tatum, who appears to be one of the best prospect in a very good draft class. Sandwiched between those picks, the Lakers selected Lonzo Ball and everything that comes with him. Ball started the year off rough, but he came along nicely and is still a good prospect and/or asset going forward.
The Lakers’ 2018 first round pick will belong to Boston if it lands at 2, like the Lakers’ last three first rounders have. It will also go to Beantown if it lands at 3. If it is the first pick or any other pick outside of the top three (it could fall in the top three or 10-13), Philadelphia will retain the pick and send the better of their 2019 first rounders or the Sacramento Kings’ 2019 first round pick. The 76ers look like a team with a bright future, but the Kings appear to be headed nowhere, so the Celtics may well get a very high pick regardless. Since the Lakers only had the 10th-worst record in the league at 35-47, odds are the pick will belong to Philadelphia, and Boston will get a high Kings’ pick next year. Given how much the Lakers’ 2018 first round pick could mean to one or two teams that could control the Eastern Conference for years to come, the Steve Nash trade could end up helping a franchise build a Super Team that goes on to win titles. It just won’t be the team the Lakers hoped it would be.