According to Forbes, the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks were the two most valuable franchises heading into 2015 (Lakers at $2.6 billion, Knicks at $2.5 billion). Playing in huge markets helps allow these two teams to be considered the most valuable, despite not much recent success.
Both teams have missed the postseason each of the last two seasons, and both franchises endured through their worst seasons in team history last year, with the Lakers going 21-61 and the Knicks going 17-65.
Rebuilding is not what either of these teams like to do, but it is necessary in order to build teams that their fans expect and want them to have. Both teams have two first rounders from last month’s draft, and hope they can become players who will be important cogs in their future. Both teams struck out on big free agent names, but were able to sign players who should play important roles on their teams. Does either team seem to be ahead in the rebuilding process?
Kobe Bryant will turn 37 on August 23, and may be participating in his last NBA season this year, which will be his 20th. Bryant has only played 41 total games combined the last two seasons, and shot extremely poor from the field during his time on the floor last season. One has to wonder if he will take on less of an offensive role this season, to help some of the younger players develop.
The Lakers drafted D’Angelo Russell, point guard out of Ohio State, with the second overall selection. Russell was a First Team a Consensus All-American in his one season with Ohio State, averaging 19.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.6 steals, while connecting on 41.1% of his 3-point attempts. He did average 2.9 turnovers a game, and is not seen as an elite defender, but he is only 19-years-old. Russell’s ball-control is superb, and has nice height for a point guard at 6-4. Russell should be a starter from day one for the Lakers.
Larry Nance Jr., who will turn 23 on New Year’s Day, is a forward listed at 6-9 235 lbs. He was drafted 27th overall out of Wyoming by the Lakers. Nance was the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year this past season, and was selected to the last two First Team All-Mountain West Conference teams. He spent four years at Wyoming, and last year he averaged 16.1 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game, while shooting 51.4% from the field. Nance should have no problem on the defensive end, but will need to develop more of an offensive game, as he has not shown the ability to shoot off the dribble.
An important piece of the Lakers’ future is Julius Randle. Randle was the seventh overall selection in the 2014 NBA Draft out of Kentucky, but only appeared in one game last season as he sustained a broken leg in the season opener. Randle will turn 21 on November 29, and at 6-9 250 lbs., he already has the size to play power forward for years to come. In his one season at Kentucky, Randle averaged 15.0 points, 10.4 rebounds, 0.8 blocks, while shooting 50.1% from the field. Randle did not show the ability to hit outside jumpers consistently while at Kentucky, but he was dominant on the offensive glass and showed the ability to draw fouls constantly to earn trips to the charity stripe.
An interesting piece that could potentially be a part of their future is Roy Hibbert. Hibbert will turn 29 on December 11, and spent seven seasons with the Indiana Pacers before being acquired by the Lakers via trade. At 7-2, Hibbert is an excellent rim defender who makes it tough for opposing teams to score easy lay-ups. While the 2013 NBA playoffs seemed to be Hibbert’s breakout party offensively, averaging 17 points on 51.1% shooting in 19 games, he has failed to carry the offensive momentum in the two years since. Hibbert is on the last year of his current contract, so this season will go a long way in deciding whether the Lakers want to re-sign him to man the middle for years to come.
The Lakers were late to the free agent signing party, but were able to recover and signed reigning Sixth Man of the Year, Lou Williams, and power forward Brandon Bass.
They have Jordan Clarkson, another tall point guard listed at 6-5, who was named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team last year , when he averaged 11.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game, while starting 38 games. It looks as if the Lakers will look to having Clarkson and Russell sharing the backcourt often.
Jabari Brown can also be a piece on future Laker teams, as the 6-6 shooting guard averaged 11.9 points per game in 19 games as a Laker, after spending much time in the NBA Developmental League.
The Knicks meanwhile are building their team around scoring machine Carmelo Anthony. Anthony is entering the second season of a five-year/$124 million contract that he signed last July. Anthony turned 31 on May 29, and is coming off a season in which he played a career-low 40 games due to troublesome knee issues. Anthony is a career 25.2 points per game scorer, and led the NBA averaging 28.7 in the 2012-13 season. If Anthony stays healthy, one can fully expect him to reclaim his spot amongst the NBA’s scoring leaders.
With the 4th overall pick in the draft, the Knicks selected Kristaps Porzingis out of Latvia, a selection that was booed mercilessly at the draft by Knicks fans. Porzingis mostly heard cheers though after his Summer League debut on Saturday, in which he scored 12 points in 18 minutes. Porzingis is only 19-years-old, and for a 7-3 player has excellent range which extends past the 3-point line, while also showing great touch at the free-throw line. He clearly needs to put on more weight and muscle mass, but he seems to be more than willing to put in the necessary work. Knicks fans had to smile when former Laker and NBA Hall of Famer, James Worthy, called Porzingis “a freak of nature” and called him “a combination of Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant.”
The Knicks dealt Tim Hardaway Jr. to the Atlanta Hawks, and in return received Jerian Grant, the 19th overall selection in this year’s draft out of Notre Dame. Grant will turn 23 on October 9, and was a First Team Consensus All-American last season for Notre Dame, in a season where he averaged 16.5 points and 6.7 assists per game. He posted better than a three-to-one assist to turnover ratio last season, and proved to be a great rim-finisher, making 73.1% of his shots at the rim. He needs to help out more at the glass, especially at 6-5, but after spending four years at Notre Dame, some Knicks fans believe he may be able to step in right away as their starting point guard.
The Knicks lost their rim-protector in a trade prior to the beginning of the 2014-15 season, Tyson Chandler, but signed Robin Lopez to a four-year deal. Lopez turned 27 on April 1, and has averaged two blocks per 36 minutes in his 7-year NBA career. Lopez is great on the offensive glass, averaging 3.9 offensive rebounds per 36 minutes for his career, and 4.2 per 36 last season. Lopez does not stray far from the rim on offense, as nearly 83% of his field goal attempts last season came within 10 feet of the basket, including over 54% right at the rim. Despite that, with his offensive rebounding ability and shooting a career 53.2% from the field, Lopez can not be seen as a minus offensive player.
The Knicks made three other free-agency pickups so far this offseason in Arron Afflalo, Derrick Williams, and Kyle O’Quinn.
Afflalo, who turns 30 on October 15, should step right in as the starting shooting guard, but his two-year contract comes with a player option next season, so he may look to opt out after this year with the salary cap going significantly up next year. Afflalo is a plus defender, who is a career 38.5% 3-point shooter. Like Hibbert with the Lakers, a lot hinges on this season as to whether Afflalo is a member of the Knicks come future seasons.
O’Quinn, who turned 25 on March 26, signed a 4-year deal after spending his first three seasons with the Orlando Magic. O’Quinn never got huge minutes with the Magic, but has averaged 13.0 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per 36 minutes in his career. At 6-10 240 lbs., O’Quinn may have a chance to start at power forward, if the Knicks decide not to throw Porzingis in the lineup right away.
Williams, who turned 24 on May 25, signed a two-year contract with the Knicks, and was the second overall selection in the 2011 NBA Draft. At 6-8 241 lbs., Williams can play either forward position. While Williams has not quite lived up to second overall pick standards in his first four seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Sacramento Kings, Williams has been an above-average defensive player while averaging 15 points per 36 minutes in his career.
Both the Knicks and Lakers know that neither of their fanbases are looking for a long-term rebuilding project that involves a lot of losing. While Kobe Bryant may be entering his last season, both he and Carmelo Anthony want to win now. Bryant would love to end his career on a high note, while Anthony at 31-years-old, would love to win a championship before he retires.
While neither team was able to get a top-notch free agent, both teams should be plenty more competitive than last season.
While the Knicks may have better playoff chances this season, due to playing in a less-stacked Eastern Conference, the Lakers may currently have the brighter future, with more young talent on their roster.
The Lakers have two players on their roster who can potentially turn into All-Star talent for the foreseeable future in Russell and Randle. While Jordan Clarkson may never develop into an All-Star, he can be a solid role player on future Laker teams. Hibbert may be motivated to becoming the player who was a 2-time All-Star, while they also have instant offense off the bench in Lou Williams.
Carmelo Anthony, when healthy is a perennial All-Star. Porzingis seems to have unlimited upside, and if he can put it all together, could have James Worthy looking like a prophet. People will always remember names such as Darko Milicic, Jan Vesely, and Nikoloz Tskitishvilli, and wonder if Porzingis will be the next European bust. Grant could become a serviceable starting point guard for the Knicks, and seen as a steal in trading Tim Hardaway Jr., a player who couldn’t do much else besides score, to get him.
One advantage the Knicks do have is a proven superstar. Of course Bryant is a proven superstar, but this could be Kobe Bryant’s last season, and he has been unable to stay on the court for much of the past two. Anthony had been relatively healthy up until last season, so for the next few years the Knicks should have someone to run their offense through, and someone they can count on for timely baskets.
Both teams still have a lot of questions heading into the season. Will Hibbert be able to be the dominant big man so many expected of him? Will Bryant stay healthy? Can the Lakers stay in playoff contention with so many good teams out West? Can Porzingis play a large role in his rookie season? Will Derrick Williams ever live up to being drafted 2nd overall? Did the Knicks throw too much money at Robin Lopez ($13.5 million per season)? Can the Knicks improve enough to battle for a spot in the postseason?
It is far from easy to say which team is further along in the rebuilding process, with so many questions left unanswered. The Knicks will ship out their first round pick to the Toronto Raptors in next year’s draft, while the Lakers are sending their first round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers (unless it lands in the top three). An important part of rebuilding towards the future is the draft, and unfortunately it looks like both teams will be left without one next season unless a trade is made for one.
The NBA seems to be better off when the Knicks and Lakers are both competing in the playoffs, and both teams are at least trying to head in that direction. While the Lakers currently may have more young talent, the Knicks have the younger superstar. Both teams will have ample salary cap room come free agency next year, and maybe they won’t strike out on all the big-time free agents again. Lakers fans want their 17th championship banner raised, while many Knicks fans want to witness their first Knicks championship, as they haven’t won one since 1973. All that both of these fanbases can do is hope that Phil Jackson and Mitch Kupchak are putting these teams in position for it to happen.