For the entirety of their 68 years of existence, the Los Angeles Lakers have been defined by their big men. They won their first five titles behind George Mikan, their next with Wilt Chamberlain and then reeled off five in the '80s thanks to the ageless skill of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Shaquille O'Neal led LA to three more championships in the early 2000s, and when he left, the Lakers didn't win again until adding Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.
Jahlil Okafor was sitting right there with the No. 2 draft pick on Thursday, waiting to be the next star in the franchise's unparalleled big man lineage. Okafor was the type of player the Lakers have always built around, a remarkably polished behemoth who could bully other teams inside and carry an offense by himself. It seemed like a no-brainer.
But something caused the Lakers to go in a completely different direction and pick the draft's best guard: Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell.
2015 NBA Draft
2015 NBA Draft
Credit the shifting paradigm of the NBA as a league that wants to play smaller and faster with an emphasis on three-point shooting. Credit the influence of the Golden State Warriors, who just bombed the association by playing that way. Credit Russell for being really, really good. For those reasons and more, the Lakers decided to move into the future rather than hold onto the past.
What made the choice between Russell and Okafor so fascinating was how the two players represented opposite ends of the spectrum for how people think about basketball. There were actually a striking number of similarities. Both players thrive with skill instead of athleticism, both have a great feel for the game and both will face questions about their defensive ability.
The difference is distance. While Okafor did his damage taking two-pointers close to the rim, Russell will fire away from 25-feet behind the arc. It doesn't take a mathemagician to figure out three is worth more than two.
Conventional wisdom says it's easier to find a guard than a big man, particularly when that big man projects as the type who can average over 20 points per game. The thing is, it isn't easy to find a guard like D'Angelo Russell. He doesn't just shoot threes, he creates efficient looks from three-point range that wouldn't be there for other players. He can pull up off the dribble or play off the ball, with a lifetime of experience playing both spots. When he got rolling for Ohio State last season, he was the most electrifying player in the country.
The elephant in the room with the second pick was Julius Randle, the player the Lakers tabbed to start their rebuild at No. 7 in the 2014 draft. Randle's rookie season ended after just 14 minutes in his first game, but he's still very much part of the Lakers' plans moving forward. They proved that by picking Russell on Thursday.
While drafting Okafor would have doubled down on Randle's shortcomings, Russell should accentuate his strengths. Randle is a speedy and powerful power forward who should thrive in the pick-and-roll with Russell, where the guard's brilliant vision and passing ability will get him easy looks. The Lakers can play up-tempo and fast like they did in the Showtime days, not wait for Okafor to lumber up and down the court every possession.
The fit with Okafor and Randle was always going to be odd. Both liked to work in the post and neither has much of a jumper. That meant spacing was going to be hard to find. The fact that neither projected as a rim-protecting defensive anchor might have been the real blow that swung this race in Russell's favor.
The Warriors proved you don't need a giant in the middle scoring from the post to win the championship. Now more than ever, the league is based on spreading the floor, shooting and running the two-man game out of the pick-and-roll. By choosing Russell and Randle as their young core, the Lakers seem to understand this. It's hard to pass on a center with Okafor's incredible shot creating ability, but there might be enough offense here with a defense-first center holding down the paint.
If this draft class came up 10 years ago, it's hard to imagine Okafor would fall out of the top two. But this is an era where the Warriors proved once and forever speed and shooting can overcome size. As Kobe Bryant enters his 20th and final season, the Lakers know it's time to move forward. By picking Russell, they've decided to do it by embracing the future instead of holding onto their history.