Joel Embiid is shaping up as the latest incarnation in the storied lineage of Los Angeles Lakers centers. He’s got the back problems of Dwight Howard and the foot problems of Shaquille O’Neal and Pau Gasol.
That doesn’t mean the Lakers should not take him if the two screws implanted into the navicular bone in his right foot Friday scare away enough teams to leave Embiid available at the No. 7 pick. At the moment he’s a better fit for them than any other team in the draft’s top 10.
With Kobe Bryant under contract for two high-cost seasons, the Lakers don’t need to a pick for the long term. They need to extract as much as they can from what’s left of Bryant’s career. With that mentality, it wouldn’t be as devastating to them if Embiid’s career is cut short by injuries. Even one or two high-level seasons would suffice. It’s the same risk they took when they brought in Howard fresh off back surgery in 2012; they shouldn’t get shy because it didn’t pay off.
Besides, the chances of getting a long-term franchise cornerstone at No. 7 are slim. None of the seventh picks from 2003 to 2008 has stayed with his team for the duration of his career. (Two of them, Kirk Hinrich and Corey Brewer, are back with their original teams after going elsewhere).
The long-term success of the Lakers isn’t strictly dependent on striking gold in the draft. They’ve shown they are capable of landing major free agents or making trades with confidence that players will re-sign with them. Hearing Julius Randle glow about the mystique of the Lakers and his admiration for Kobe after his workout in L.A. this week served as a reminder that the Lakers still resonate with the up-and-coming generation of players. They also have the financial means to go into the luxury tax to assemble and maintain their roster.
No other team with high draft picks has that fallback. They all need their picks in this deeper-than-normal draft to click if they’re going to have success.
The Lakers’ fan base wouldn’t freak out if they picked Embiid. While O’Neal had that problematic big toe and Gasol has dealt with plantar fasciitis, the Lakers don’t have the star-crossed injury history of say, Portland, with its litany of limping big men from Bill Walton to Sam Bowie to Greg Oden that would immediately make Laker fans fear for the worst.
Actually, Walton’s Portland years -- one great season, four injury-plagued ones -- would be more than enough for the Lakers from the No. 7 spot. Walton played more than 58 games in a season only once for the Trail Blazers, but that once was enough to get him a Most Valuable Player award, a championship and a cherished spot in the hearts of all Blazers fans. That might be more than Embiid fulfilling his potential, Bryant returning to 80 percent of his capacity and a key free agent could accomplish for the Lakers ... but at least Embiid could entice with possibilities.
There’s no player in this draft who’s guaranteed to make his team into an annual championship contender. Among the players the Lakers have brought in for workouts this week were Randle, Marcus Smart, Aaron Gordon, Nik Stauskas and Elfrid Payton, who is rocketing up the mock draft lists and impressed the Lakers in his session Friday. All could be good, none has the potential of Embiid.
If the Lakers take Embiid and it doesn’t work out, there won’t be the pervading sense of “What if?” that haunts the Trail Blazers with Oden and Kevin Durant. For the Lakers, it’s always, “What’s next?”