When the Los Angeles Lakers head out this week on a three-game road trip, they could be coming face-to-face with the future of the franchise.
And boy, could that future go in wildly varying directions.
Behind Door No. 2, there is the notion of building through the draft and making some poor choices, like the Cleveland Cavaliers have done in their post-LeBron James era. L.A. plays the Cavs on Wednesday.
Behind Door No. 3, there’s the possibility of having a youth movement actually work out, like the Philadelphia 76ers are proving so far with Rookie of the Year candidate Michael Carter-Williams, plus with a potential defensive lynchpin in Nerlens Noel waiting to be unleashed on the league after he recovers from a torn ACL. The Lakers close out the trip Friday against the Sixers.
Bringing in Love would seemingly be the quickest solution to getting the Lakers back to a championship level before Kobe Bryant's contract expires after the 2015-16 season. While the Lakers have stockpiled cap space for this summer, Love cannot opt out of his contract with the Wolves until the summer of 2015.
The former UCLA Bruin could always make it known that he has no intention of re-signing in Minnesota between now and then, essentially daring the Wolves to either orchestrate a trade so they get something in return for the 25-year-old forward -- who ranks fourth in the league in points per game at 25.5, second in rebounds at 13.1 and fourth in player efficiency rating at 27.46 -- or watch him walk.
“He’s one of the better players in the league,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, who also coached Love when he averaged 11.6 points and 7.6 rebounds for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team in London, said Monday. “He’s just a threat everywhere and then he’s always a presence on the boards, offensively rebounding. He can shoot 3s, he can post up, he puts the ball on the floor. He’s one of the better players.”
D’Antoni was then asked if Love could be the type of player a team could build around, and he shot the reporter a knowing smile, knowing full well the speculation that Love desperately wants to become a Laker.
“I mean, he’s an All-Star-caliber player,” D’Antoni said. “Yeah.”
While the Love scenario would require certain pieces to fall into place, one the Lakers can definitely look forward to is their first-round selection in the upcoming draft.
The possibility of securing the top pick might be remote -- L.A.’s 16-31 record would give it a 2.8 percent chance at the No. 1 selection if the season ended today, according to ESPN.com’s Chad Ford -- but this draft class looks to boast a handful of impact players, if not more.
But even with all the talent that could become available come June 26, all the scouting in the world won’t guarantee that a player will pan out for you at the next level.
Just look at Cleveland, which has had six first-round picks in the past three drafts, with four of those being in the top five.
Sure, choosing Kyrie Irving with the No. 1 pick in 2011 despite the point guard playing just 11 games in his lone season at Duke paid off with a Rookie of the Year campaign for Irving and averages of 21.7 points and 6.2 assists this season.
But what about those other five picks? Tristan Thompson, selected No. 4 in 2011, has pedestrian career averages of 10.7 points and 8.5 rebounds on 46.7 percent shooting. Dion Waiters, plucked No. 4 the following year, has proved he can score -- averaging 14.6 points in his two NBA seasons -- but has shot just 41.4 percent from the field in the process. Jared Cunningham, selected No. 24 by Cleveland in 2012, was used to facilitate a trade and can’t get off the bench in Atlanta this season. Sergey Karasev, selected No. 19 in 2013, is currently averaging 1.9 points and 0.9 rebounds as a rookie. And Anthony Bennett, taken No. 1 last June, is threatening to be the biggest bust in the history of the game, putting up just 3.0 points and 2.4 rebounds while shooting 28.1 percent from the field.
On the other hand, there’s Philadelphia.
Carter-Williams, selected No. 11 last year, is averaging 17.3 points, 6.6 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 steals. Noel hasn’t played a game yet, but was considered the top prospect last June by many pundits. And the 15-34 Sixers are set to add more young assets in a few months, as they hold two more first-round picks.
So there’s hope right around the corner for the Lakers -- a top-tier free agent; a can’t-miss draftee. Perhaps both.
Then again, maybe there isn’t -- a miscalculation on the free-agent market; an incorrect evaluation of a teenager’s potential. Perhaps both.
It all depends on which door the Lakers opt for.