What is the Los Angeles Lakers’ plan for the future?

Los Angeles Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell (1) and forward Kobe Bryant (24) on the bench in the second half of the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Los Angeles Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell (1) and forward Kobe Bryant (24) on the bench in the second half of the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports /
Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports /

Every NBA franchise deals with downturns, though perhaps none cope in the same fashion. Sam Hinkie stripped the Sixers down to the barest frame, while the late Flip Saunders supplemented a youth movement with wise veterans in Minnesota. Some teams avoid plunges to the basement, digging out of the middle class through savvy drafting and spending.

This begs the question — what exactly do the Lakers see as their way back to the top?

The Lakers have always viewed themselves with a certain special aura, and they’ve mostly earned that distinction. Owning the second-most titles in league history and a long list of Hall of Fame alumni goes a long way, in addition to the lure of Los Angeles and the California coast for young millionaire athletes. If you’re going to think highly of yourself, you should at least have credentials to back it up.

But credentials only take you so far. Old money and family ties are enough to buy into elite circles, but work will keep you, perhaps even your descendants there. We’re still in the early days of this season, but it appears the Lakers aren’t willing to put in the work to remain relevant. More importantly, it seems they have no interest in setting up some of their primary benefactors.

It was only five months ago that the Lakers used the No. 2 overall pick to select D’Angelo Russell out of Ohio State, eschewing talents like post-ballerina Jahlil Okafor and slender sensation Kristaps Porzingis to do so. Drafting someone with the No. 2 overall pick is typically an indication you are prepared to bet the future on their ability.

In recent history, the franchise has been mostly content selling the Laker brand as a means to maintain, rather than relying on scouting and developing young players. The Lakers making a pick in the lottery at all is rare; their last three lottery selections were Julius Randle last season, Andrew Bynum in 2005 and … Eddie Jones in 1994. Owning a pick that can obtain Russell-level talent is an outlier.

Given that, their treatment of Russell boggles the mind.

One of the most important pieces of player development is affording young players enough rope to learn through failure. Making players safe enough to play free but guarded enough to avoid recklessness is one of coaching’s great nuances. Byron Scott seems not to care for this tactic, openly pressuring his players to get better — or else.

What makes his chiding of Russell less palatable are the type of players getting rotation burn at the expense of Russell’s playing time.

Consider the 15 minutes given to Marcelo Huertas, a 32-year-old rookie who spent the last 11 seasons playing in Europe. Were this a championship-caliber team, playing a more seasoned pro might make sense. But when you watch Huertas get his soul snatched like this…

…it makes it hard to take Scott’s criticisms of Russell’s defensive aptitude seriously.

There is no tangible upside to allotting time for Huertas on this rebuilding Lakers squad, on a team that should have no short-term goal other than to get the most out of what young talent they have.

Unfortunately for Russell, that mandate is apparent to everyone except those pulling the strings in LA. The previous coach, Mike D’Antoni, was railroaded out of town for the failings of a disjointed roster, but also because a decrepit Kobe Bryant never wanted him around to begin with. Now the franchise is saddled with not just a bad coach, but a coach who was only brought in to appease a decaying star to begin with.

This much is apparent in the way Kobe has carried himself on court:

There is a world where the Lakers could account for a proud Bryant farewell and a strong beginning of Russell’s development. Instead, they’ve left us to question whether they truly care about either; an ageing Bryant has been given the same leverage to jack shots that he had in his prime, while poor souls like Russell and Jordan Clarkson stand lifelessly around the perimeter. You could dress the duo in Smush Parker jerseys and we could pretend it’s 2006 all over again. At least in those days, Kobe had the legs to knock down jumpers and the athleticism to beat defenders off the dribble.

The Lakers are careening downhill with no clear way to stop. Even if Scott is removed as head coach, what replacement would have the cache to trump Bryant and restore balance? Short of Phil Jackson making a heel turn and hopping down from his executive chair in New York, the Lakers are short on options. They learned this summer that their pitch for free agents — traditionally a “get out of jail free card” for reckless, win-now habits — is woefully out of touch. Presently, they can’t even be bothered to explain to the talent on hand what it is they need to do better:

The rotation decisions are on Scott. The fact that the front office has given him room to make mistakes in this area (the same room he’s withholding from some of his youthful talent) is on them. Tacit support is still support.

So what is it they have left? Players like Russell, tasked with grabbing the torch for a new generation despite the previous one not letting go.