Watching the playoffs unfold the way that they have has reminded me of a basic tenet of building a winning basketball team: the draft is where the foundation is formed for long term success.
We just saw the Thunder advance to the Finals with a nucleus of players (Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka) that was completely home grown. The team they dispatched – the Spurs – also sported a trio of home grown stars (Duncan, Parker, Ginobili). When you look to the East, the foundations are not as plush with guys that started on those teams but two of the Celtics’ top four contributors (Pierce, Rondo) were plucked up by the C’s brass. While in Miami, several key contributors (Haslem, Chalmers, Cole, Anthony) and a franchise cornerstone (Wade) are home grown.
Of course, when building a winner, there will be outside players brought in. Be it a superstar or two (Garnett, LeBron) or a role player (Battier, Perkins), organizations are tasked with finding the right pieces to fit around the talent that they drafted and cultivated. This is how most champions have been built (the one major exception is the 2004 Pistons, but they’re always the exception) and how they will continue to be.
When you look at the Lakers, they too have been constructed using this formula. Kobe has long been the home grown franchise icon that provided a pillar to build around. Bynum too has ascended to the ranks of top flight contributor that was also selected by the Lakers. When you add players like Gasol, Odom, Ariza, and Artest the Lakers have done a good job of mixing players they’ve drafted with others acquired via trades and free agency to build teams that won championships.
However, in the two years since the Lakers have raised the Larry O’Brien trophy we’ve seen a subtle shift in how they’ve gone about building their team.
Quick, besides Bynum and Kobe tell me a player the Lakers drafted that was a key contributor to either last or this year’s team.
If you came up blank, I don’t blame you. Derek Fisher would have been an easy name but he’s since been traded and was drafted the same year as Kobe. After him there’s not an obvious name. Ebanks? Goudelock? Both saw limited action this year and had minimal impact in the big scheme of things. Last year, there wasn’t a single Laker draftee that played significant minutes outside of Kobe, Bynum, and Fisher.
Now, look back to the 2008 Finals team and the back to back title winners from 2009 and 2010. The list doesn’t grow a whole lot but it does grow. Besides Kobe and Bynum the team had Farmar, Sasha, and Walton. Of course as time went on Luke’s role became close to non-existent and Sasha worked his way into Phil Jackson’s doghouse. But at the start of the Lakers’ recent run, they were contributors.
Of course, railing against the Lakers aversion to the draft is too easy and paints too black and white a picture. In order for the Lakers to acquire Pau Gasol, they had to trade multiple draft picks. And when constructing the team in front of us now, they traded more draft picks for Ramon Sessions and Jordan Hill. The latter two players are both young and provided great, albeit unsteady, production after they were acquired.
The bigger picture issue for me is that besides Hill and Sessions the Lakers have often gotten rid of youth and exchanged it for more experienced veterans. When Farmar was allowed to walk in free agency they signed Steve Blake. When Ariza left the team signed Ron. Matt Barnes has been a key rotation player the past two years and when Shannon Brown left this past off-season he wasn’t replaced at all – unless you want to count Jason Kapono’s signing.
Further analysis complicates things further. The Lakers have drafted well with the picks they’ve had. Ebanks, Goudelock, and Morris all look to be NBA quality players. The team also did sign Josh McRoberts as a young PF that has shown promise as a back up big man. But these players have not yet proven to be contributors that can stick in the rotation.
Ultimately, the Lakers have been a team that’s skewed older when looking for rotation players and that’s a departure from what earned them three straight trips to the Finals (even with the Ariza/Ron swap the team still had youth in their rotation). Whether or not this changes will depend on the myriad of decisions the team will make this summer. Two of their three stars are aging and they have precious few young options on the wing so these are surely conversations the front office is debating with the transition to next season is in full swing.
It’s interesting to see, though, how this team has evolved from one with a nice mix of home grown stars and youthful contributors to one that’s aged and overly reliant on veterans whose peaks have passed. Maybe the acquisitions of Sessions and Hill start to change that. And maybe we’ll see more youth infused in the free agency period or with a draft day acquisition beyond what the Lakers can do with the 60th pick. But as the Thunder rest today, with a Finals berth in the back pocket of their designer skinny jeans (kids these days!), the Lakers must also look at their model and wonder if they too need to get back to skewing a bit younger. After all, the last time they won a title they did just that.