Image by Michael Tipton
Born in ’92, my first post “Space Jam” foray into the world of basketball was a gigantic book on the NBA, purchased for me by my father after the ’98 season. It illustrated all 30 teams as well as their history to date. I hadn’t chosen a team at the time, so this book was to be my guiding light. I was adamant about not becoming a Bulls fan because every kid at school knew who Michael Jordan was, so I had to be different.
Even at 6 years old, the fabled Lakers Mystique had me hooked. Tales of a man named Magic Johnson. The royal looking purple and gold uniform. Shaquille O’Neal. Kareem. A franchise history that sounded like a work of fiction. Yes, the Celtics had more titles, but they just didn’t have that same pizzazz about them as a franchise. Plus, their mascot freaked me out.
Why is this important, you ask? Because as a 27 year old, in NBA terms I’d be “in my prime”, which means I’m in the same age demographic as a lot of the superstars who will be looking for new contracts over the next few seasons. A demographic who saw the same thing in the Lakers as I did. But times are changing.
After decades of dominance, the Los Angeles Lakers have been neck and neck with the New York Knicks as the gold standard in mediocrity over the last 6 years. Terrible contracts granted to Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, letting young players like D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle walk for nothing, letting key veterans like Brook Lopez also walk for nothing, and the LaVar Ball and Magic Johnson circuses are some of the franchise highlights over this period of time.
There have been few saving graces, namely the free agent signing of one LeBron James, as well as having the most absurd lottery luck ever – luck that allowed the Lakers to acquire Anthony Davis via trade.
Yet, in the span of a year, marquee free agent Kawhi Leonard went from having the Lakers as his preferred destination, to them apparently “not being an option at all” according to Woj. The same thing happened with Paul George, who went from pining to be a member of the purple and gold, to signing a new contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The harsh reality is that at the time of writing this, aside from LeBron James, the Los Angeles Lakers have not signed a single marquee free agent in a decade, and not for lack of trying. Free agents of years gone by like Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge didn’t even take the Lakers pitch seriously. Name brand isn’t enough anymore. In the age of globalisation and gigantic television deals, being in a big market doesn’t provide as big an advantage as it did even 15 years ago. You can be as much of a worldwide phenomenon in a city like Milwaukee as you can in the LA’s or New York’s of the world.
The last four teams standing in this years NBA playoffs were the Golden State Warriors, Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks and the Portland Trailblazers. Guess how many marquee free agent signings those teams have between them? One – Kevin Durant. The rest of the stars on these successful teams were either drafted by their current teams (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Giannis Antetokoumpo, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Pascal Siakam) or were acquired via shrewd trades (Kawhi Leonard, Jusuf Nurkic, Kyle Lowry). And no, I don’t count resigning your stud players as key free agent acquisitions, I’m talking about aggressively hunting for stars from other teams.
People will refer to the LeBron James era Miami Heat as a counter example to the above, but for the Heatles to exist, it took an unprecedented combination of crazy amounts of cap space, three best friends wanting to play together and two of those aforementioned friends taking significant pay cuts. They are the exception, not the norm. Although I will gladly eat crow if this does happen, don’t expect the Kyrie Irving’s of the world to willingly leave millions of dollars on the table just for the chance to play for the Los Angeles Lakers.
More than ever in today’s NBA, it’s become apparent that good management and a smart front office trumps history or brand power. A lot of the less ‘noisy’ franchises have cottoned onto the importance of building through the draft years ago. Others, such as the Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies have begun to take steps in the right direction. My beloved Lakers seem to have not gotten the memo, and have been stuck playing checkers while all the best franchises are off playing chess.
The further and further the Los Angeles Lakers get from the glory days, the less likely it is that the incoming prospects have fantasised about being in the purple and gold, and the weaker the perceived value of the Lakers name gets. If the location of Los Angeles really matters to a player, there’s a team called the Clippers down the hall who have a much more competent front office.
In the short term, I think that the lure of playing with LeBron James and Anthony Davis may bring some good players to play for the franchise. However, it’s a band-aid solution and not a sustainable model for long term success. If the Lakers lost even one of their high picks over the past 5 years as a result of the Dwight Howard trade, then I argue that the Davis deal never gets done. Plus, does LeBron even come in the first place if LA doesn’t have those assets? I’d argue that if the Lakers didn’t have all those young guys to package in a trade, LeBron would have taken his talents to Philadelphia alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. I know basketball wasn’t his only reason for coming to Los Angeles, but with even slightly worse lottery luck, I think the gulf in upside between both rosters would’ve been too large to ignore.
To the Lakers credit, they’ve drafted quite well for the most part during this period, although there have been some notable misses like Mitch Robinson (who they apparently promised to take). However, the solid drafting has been undone by swinging for the fences in free agency, failing miserably, and then desperately overpaying mediocre players to fill out the roster as a last resort (see: Lance Stephenson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the aforementioned Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov). If the franchise is to flourish well into the 21st century, they need to adapt and catch up to the rest of the league. Wooing players in free agency has always been the Lakers way, but the way the modern NBA is constructed, that’s rarely how a contender is built. Right now, they are on the verge of being left behind.