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Luke Walton, Lakers


Who makes the playoffs first: Luke Walton or the Los Angeles Lakers?

The Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers endured captivating 2018-19 seasons, but for different reasons. On one hand, the Kings watched their young core come into its own and keep them in the playoff mix throughout the majority of the regular season. Meanwhile, the Lakers missed the playoffs in the first year of the LeBron James era.

The Kings and Lakers each opted to go in a different direction, firing their head coaches (Dave Joerger, Luke Walton) at season’s end. Ironically, Walton quickly agreed to a deal to become the man in command on the Sacramento sideline.

Now, both teams finished with losing records this season and have a ways to go before they can be considered a threat to the top of the Western Conference, but next season presents a more positive outlook for them. With that said, who will make the playoffs first: Walton’s Kings, or his former employer?

The Case for Luke Walton and the Kings

The Kings were one of the most exciting teams in the NBA this season. After years of hype and optimism, their young core showed what it’s capable of.

Once an enigma, Buddy Hield performed at an All-Star level in his second full season with the Kings. Averaging a team-high 20.7 points per game while shooting 42.7 percent from beyond the arc, he was a force to be reckoned with. Whether it be his ability to shoot off the dribble, play in isolation, or operate out on the perimeter, he’s a well-rounded offensive player; Hield is also a reliable defender.

De’Aaron Fox impressed in his second season. Averaging 17.3 points and 7.3 assists per game, he was the glue that kept the Kings offense together. Ranging from his ability to get to the rim, stick midrange jumpers, find the open man, to defending his man with ease, Fox is one of the most promising young guards in the NBA.

Willie Cauley-Stein has established himself as one of the best centers in the NBA. The 11.9 points and 8.4 rebounds per game he put forth last season likely didn’t wow anybody, but they don’t tell the whole story. Cauley-Stein is a defensive enforcer, finishes relentlessly inside, and is the modern-day NBA center.

There were some bumps in the road, but number two overall pick Marvin Bagley had an encouraging rookie season. Averaging 14.9 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, he played to his capabilities. Bagley is an athletic player on both ends of the floor given his ability to sky above rim, hit the boards, attack the rack, and finish inside.

Arguably the most underrated aspect of their young core, Bogdan Bogdanovic is an offensive spark plug off the bench. Averaging 14.1 points per game this season, he continued to be a vital source of offense for the Kings, given his ability to play in isolation and run the fastbreak.

Meanwhile, the Kings acquired veteran forward Harrison Barnes before this season’s NBA trade deadline. Barnes gives them a player who can play out on the perimeter, help carry the scoring load, and play at a high level defensively. They also have the likes of Justin Jackson and Harry Giles coming off the bench while Nemanja Bjelica provides an outside-shooting threat.

While there are plenty of things to be optimistic about with this team, they still finished the season 39-43; they’re far from a finished product and have to improve defensively. In fact, they finished 26th in opponents points per game (115.3) and 20th in opponent field goal percentage (46.6) last season. It’s up to Luke Walton to make this team more respectable on that end of the floor and keep them on the same page offensively.

The Case for the Lakers

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: This season was an unmitigated disaster for the Lakers. Ranging from their shaky start, James’ supposed involvement with team decisions, rumors of Luke Walton getting the ax (which he got after the regular season), late-seasons injuries to Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, or Magic Johnson stepping down as team president, the Lakers were a runaway rollercoaster that couldn’t be stopped.

With all that said, it’s realistic to think that they could right the ship after a 37-win season.

Despite the chaos that took place last season, the Lakers could land another star, or two, to put alongside James this offseason. The free agent market features the likes of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, and Kemba Walker. With the chance to compete for the playoffs and help get the team back on track, the Lakers should be able to lure at least one of those stars to the City of Angels.

Another alternative, and one that is likely to regain momentum, is a trade for New Orleans Pelicans star, and the best big man in the NBA, Anthony Davis. The Lakers offered essentially half their roster, which featured several young players such as Ball, Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart, as well as multiple draft picks for Davis; the Pelicans declined the offer. While Ball and Ingram’s injuries could work against them in trade talks, the Lakers still have the ammunition to make a trade for the big man. Plus, the Pelicans have no leverage in trade talks given Davis wanting out of NOLA and him potentially being a free agent after next season.

At the same time, if the Lakers sign a star free agent and stick with their guns, they can compete for the playoffs. James can be a headache, but he’s still the best player in the NBA, a potent force on both ends, and the team’s best chance of getting back to relevance. Ball, Ingram, and Kuzma all have the potential to be significant contributors moving forward.

Ball has great court vision, hits the boards at a high rate for a guard, and is an underrated defender; Ingram has been underwhelming, but can still chip in 15-20 points a game; Kuzma has been the most steady presence in the Lakers rotation the last two years given his ability to help lead the scoring charge.

This is a talented team. Success will be determined by whether the organization brings in a star player and if their roster can get on the same page to establish an understanding of one another.

The Verdict: Kings

There are viable reasons to believe that each of these teams could catapult into the playoffs in the 2019-20 season, but it’s far more likely that the Kings do as such. For starters, they have an identity: their young core. They’ve grown in each passing season and have put Sacramento back on the NBA map, despite being devoid of a playoff appearance. If you’re a veteran free agent looking to win and/or join a team on the rise, the Kings are the perfect bandwagon to hop aboard.

On the other hand, the Lakers have been an organization of turmoil, a stigma surrounds their franchise player, and anyone that signs with them will take on an immense amount of pressure to coexist alongside James and win immediately. They can, without a doubt, turn things around, but the Lakers have a lot to figure out both on and off the court, such as who their head coach is going to be and whether Rob Pelinka is going to run the show upstairs.

It’s important to keep in mind how stiff the competition in the West is. Even if they lose Durant to free agency, the Golden State Warriors are still a playoff team. Meanwhile, the Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, and Oklahoma City Thunder likely aren’t going anywhere. That leaves the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers, who are also no guarantee to fall out of the playoff picture next season; the Spurs are a proven veteran team; the Clippers will have roughly $60 million in cap space this summer.

But the eight teams who make the playoffs in a respective conference rarely all return the ensuing season; Luke Walton and the Kings will finish ahead of the Lakers and crack the postseason.