I’ve not stopped watching the NBA since the Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs. While it’s disappointing seeing the post-season in full flow while the Lakers sit at home, the playoffs have been riveting to watch and I can’t imagine depriving myself of these games simply because the team I’d like to see still playing is not.
I’ve actually been covering the 2nd round match up between the Warriors and the Spurs for Pro Basketball talk. So if you miss my ramblings about X’s and O’s, adjustments, and everything else you can go there are check it out. In any event, watching that series unfold in the manner it has is sort of a cruel reminder of why the Lakers are in the circumstance they are.
(Tangent: One of key reasons the Lakers are in the position they are is because health literally crippled this roster’s ability to be competitive. I have no illusions of grandeur with this particular roster (okay, that’s not true, I have some), but I know that a completely healthy Lakers’ team would have been competitive with the Spurs with a real chance of winning that series. I said it at the time, but by game 3 the Lakers weren’t just missing Kobe but were also missing Nash, Blake, Meeks, and Ron. That’s 5 of the team’s top 9 players and their entire back court rotation. I don’t want to rehash all those feelings of frustration that stemmed from that series, but I can not be convinced those injuries didn’t mean a great deal to the Lakers. In just typing that sentence and reading it aloud, it seems silly to argue otherwise. But I digress. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.)
The Warriors and Spurs offer differing models for how their respective teams have been constructed, but both are quite successful.
The Warriors are a young team built, ultimately, through the fruits of their past failures. Don’t get me wrong, the trade of Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut was a deft maneuver that has paid off handsomely these playoffs. But even that swap was sweetened with Epke Udoh, a lottery pick who flashed very good potential as a versatile defender and rebounder. The Warriors could afford to trade Udoh because they already had two lottery pick building blocks in Steph Curry and Klay Thompson with the intent on tanking for another in last year’s draft. That pick would become Harrison Barnes.
Of course it takes more than just lottery talent and the Warriors have done a good job of surrounding that youth with quality veterans while also using picks later in the draft to pick up high floor/relatively low ceiling players who can contribute early in their careers. David Lee, Jarrett Jack, and Carl Landry (along with Bogut) are the veterans who bring leadership and toughness to the team while Draymond Green and Festus Ezili join the aforementioned lottery picks as young players who form the building blocks for the future.
In essence what the Warriors have done is mixed explosive youth with steady veterans (if you want to call Jarrett Jack steady) and built a playoff team that can compete in today’s NBA. They have shooters, some post players, and enough defense to win in the regular season and the playoffs. This model is similar to the one the Thunder has used in constructing their team. Mix young and expierenced with complementary skill sets, get the youth the reps they need, and then go out there and compete.
The Spurs, meanwhile, are an old-guard team who uses a different model. They have a championship core from an era past that they lean on heavily. Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan have played together for a decade and are still the key components to this team. Surrounding them are a mix of veterans (Bonner, Diaw, Gary Neal) and young-ish players (Danny Green, Splitter, Corey Joseph) who serve as specialists next to that core. (As a side note, Kawhi Leonard is also young but it remains to be seen if he becomes a “star” in this league. He certainly has the skill set and demeanor to be a key player on a championship roster.)
Further, the Spurs are a strict system team that stresses process over results. Gregg Popovich is a master general and his approach is to strip down the game to a level where every single player must do his job on every single possession in order get his team to play at its best. This is still a team that depends on talent to win, but the system helps maximize that talent and allows for the parts to be more interchangeable than with other teams. If the Spurs don’t have a player available, they plug in another player and expect that person to step in and do his job within the context of the team’s system. Again, it’s the process that matters most because by doing things right, the results will follow.
The Lakers, meanwhile, didn’t really follow either of these paths this past season. In a way, they’re built more like the Spurs, using aging players from a championship teams as the core to their roster. But with their early season firing of Mike Brown they went away from a “system” style of play to more of a “philosophical” approach where “the ball finds energy” on offense. Mike D’Antoni has principles to what he likes to run, but with this roster he couldn’t really implement that style due to variety of reasons (several players who are most comfortable in the post, a lack of shooters, injuries to his key ball handling guards).
As for building through youth, the Lakers haven’t had that luxury due to them not being a team bad enough to grab lottery level talent through the draft. The Lakers did trade for Dwight Howard who remains one of the best young-ish stars in the league (Dwight is still only 26 years old), but outside of him the team has very few players under 25 none of which are currently rotation level players.
This isn’t to say that the Lakers’ model doesn’t or can’t work. They’ve assembled a talented roster, but one that is expensive and top heavy, making it harder to supplement with a lot of serviceable depth. Injuries can devastate a roster built like this and, as the Lakers saw, can derail a season if too many of them occur at the same time.
But, when looking at the Spurs and Warriors I’m reminded of what actually does work in this league and how, whether through bad luck or due to the choices they’ve made, the Lakers didn’t go in that same direction. There are many ways to skin a cat in this league, but ultimately you need a combination of talent and direction to achieve at the heights this team strives for. The Lakers diverged off that path somewhat this year and paid the price for it.
Next year can be different. But the choices they make must work out and the direction provided by the coaches and the buy-in from the players must all be there as well. Because, as the teams remaining in the playoffs are showing (and not just the Warriors and Spurs — look at the other teams too), you need more than just an idea of what your team can be, you need follow through and commitment from everyone to advance.