With a new front office entering their first offseason, and a collection of exciting but unproven young players, the Lakers’ future feels wide open. The team could literally go in dozens of different directions over the next few years, depending on the front office’s team-building philosophy, how the young core develops, and in response to countless variables (lottery luck, free agent decisions, trade opportunities). They could, for example, stick with a slow, patient rebuild, cash in their recent lottery picks for established stars in a push to quickly contend, or try something in between, and each path has its risks and benefits.
Team building is ultimately about being opportunistic and flexible, rather than having a rigid plan that you follow no matter what. Rob Pelinka has spoken several times of the need to be prepared for uncertainty by coming up with “Plans A-Z,” which account for various possible future events. In that spirit, Darius and I have thought about different ways the team can build towards a contending roster, based on how key events unfold (e.g., keeping/losing the 2017 lottery pick, using cap room on significant free agents at different points in time, trading for a star player, etc.), and have put together a series of posts that will explore different roster construction options.
One key in building a successful long term roster is having a clear vision of timing. Teams inevitably cycle in and out of contention based on the age/health of key players and various other factors. History shows that it is important to make moves based on a clear sense of when the team is trying to make the ultimate push to contend. Getting to the point of contention is very difficult in a league of 30 teams playing a zero sum game, and typically requires making sure your limited assets are all firing at the same time. In other words, contending teams don’t typically have the resources to combine developing, teenage lottery picks with an older, ready-to-contend core. And, conversely, rebuilding teams don’t typically have the ability to rebuild effectively if they have too many productive veterans taking prospect minutes, or driving too many wins… Getting stuck in the dreaded no man’s land can set a team back years (see, New York Knicks).
In thinking through the team’s future, Darius and I see three big picture paths forward, driven by the timing of when Magic/Pelinka push to contend:
- Slow Rebuild: committing to a patient, slow rebuild, and trying to contend in 4-5 years, when the current core enters their primes.
- Expedited Rebuild: pushing to acquire a foundation star as soon as possible to quicken the rebuild, with the goal of making the playoffs next year, and ultimately contending in 2-3 years.
- Immediate Contention: cashing in the team’s young assets in a push to immediately become a legitimate contender.
The team could conceivably be successful under each path if they make smart decisions and things break their way, although the first two options appear more likely to succeed for obvious reasons. Darius and I will attempt to work through the pros and cons, and how the team might build towards contention under each path, considering the impact of the draft, free agency, and trades.
And, while having a clear and defined vision for the team’s timeline is critical, it is also important to recognize that team-building is inherently a fluid exercise, and sometimes your timing can become accelerated (or depressed) based on unforeseen events, which may result in a need to pivot towards a new timeline/objective. Sometimes you are Cleveland, mired in a messy rebuild, having drafted Anthony Bennett first overall, and Lebron decides to swoop into town and catapult you to instant contention… And sometimes you are Los Angeles, coming off two recent titles, and with a Kobe-Pau-Dwight-Nash core, and you suddenly find yourself in the depths of rebuilding… The best front offices always maintain some level of flexibility and understand when it is time to move from one timeline to another.
I will start this exercise by considering below how the team might approach option (1) – a slow, patient rebuild, with the hope of building a long-lasting contender when the current core enters their primes in 3-5 years. I am not necessarily advocating for this plan over others, but I do think it merits real consideration given the potential benefits.
The Case for the Slow Rebuild
Committing to a slow rebuild may be the best path to maximize assets and build the strongest possible roster if the team has the patience to go that route. Jeanie and corporate interests are not going to endure endless losing, and she may ultimately direct that the team begin winning sooner than a patient rebuild would entail, but building slow has several clear advantages.
First, watching this year’s playoffs closely has underscored how far the Lakers (and the rest of the league) are from actually getting to the finals or winning a title. Golden State is, conservatively, one of the 3-4 most talented rosters of all time. It has three legitimate all-nba level superstars (Curry, Durant, Green), a clear fourth all star (Klay), and a deep collection of supporting talent. There will be some turnover over the years, but the core appears committed to winning as many titles as possible together, and they are still young (Curry and Durant are 28, Green and Klay are 26). There is no set of reasonably possible moves that the Lakers could make the next few years that would generate a roster in remotely the same class as Golden State. Out East, Lebron is putting up perhaps his best playoffs ever at 32, appears a few years away from declining, and is now in the discussion for the best player of all time. Kyrie is 24, Love 28, and Thompson 25. Ring-chasing veterans will continue to flock there.
Beyond these superpowers, several other strong teams have all-nba-level superstars who are still young: San Antonio/Kawhi (25), OKC/Westbrook (28), Houston/Harden (27), Boston/Isaiah (27), Utah/Hayward/Gobert (26/24), Washington/Wall/Beal (26/23), Milwaukee/Giannis/Parker (22/22), and so on. There is also a new wave of potential young stars gathering on other teams (Towns/Wiggins, Embiid/Simmons, Jokic/Murray, Davis/Cousins, Lillard/McCollum/Nurkic).
This is not to say the Lakers could not build a roster that is better than many of these teams, but the point is that the league is VERY competitive right now, with two-historic superpowers, and a deep collection of talented teams driven by young stars. Before cashing in their chips to win now, the Lakers must seriously consider how far the resulting roster would likely take them. Note that Golden State’s 2015 team was the single youngest core ever to win the title. Early 20s prospects simply don’t beat grown men in the playoffs. The safer course may be to wait out Golden State and Cleveland and stock up for a run 3-4 years down the line. When Russell and Ingram hit their primes (perhaps 4 years?), Lebron will be 36 and surely declining (unless he truly is a machine), and Golden State’s core will all be over 30 (and hopefully sick of Draymond’s daily intensity…). At that point, the Lakers’ core would have 5-6 prime years ahead of them.
A second reason to build slowly is that this may ultimately be the best way to attract the kinds of blue chip star players the team wants. Consider that over the last 4 summers, 49 free agents changed teams with a starting salary over 10% of that year’s salary cap, and only 4 went to lottery teams. Over the last 6 summers, only ONE all star signed with a losing team (Lebron to Cleveland).
We have painfully learned over the last several years that the best players no longer come to the biggest markets; they go to the best teams (for the rare few who actually leave more money on the table by changing teams). Thus, to have a realistic chance at attracting the star level free agents that Magic and Pelinka often mention, the team will almost assuredly have to put a foundation in place that will attract those players, and that may take time given the current state of the team.
A third reason to be patient is that the team might actually have a core and coach worth believing in. Russell, Ingram, and Randle have all flashed all star level upside for meaningful stretches (even if it’s an open question whether any or all of them ultimately get there). Zubac put together an extremely promising age 19 season, with length, offensive skills, and game feel that suggest a bright future. Clarkson may have plateaued this year, but he still is far outperforming his draft position, and shows an intriguing combination of physical tools and nba skills, even if it’s yet to fully come together. And, of course, the team will have multiple picks in the coming draft, including potentially a coin’s flip chance at another high lottery prospect. Each player needs to develop in critical ways, but the team has absolutely collected a young core that could become something.
And focusing on what the Lakers have may be the key to building the next contender. When considering how to acquire star level talent, most fans typically look outside their current roster to consider potential free agent signings or blockbuster trades. This has certainly been the case entering this offseason, with the focus so predominantly on how to add Paul George (note that I intentionally waited 2 ½ pages to mention him…). And there are obviously reasons why adding George as a foundation piece would help, and we will speak to those in more detail when discussing the expedited rebuild option (attracting other stars, assisting the development of the remaining core, etc.).
But I think we often overlook the best way for a team like these Lakers to obtain star level players is to turn their current players into stars, rather than looking for outside help. Last year, 11 of the 15 all-nba players were not top 5 picks, and several were drafted outside the lottery. This year, SEVEN of Zach Lowe’s all-nba players were drafted outside the lottery (Kawhi, Isaiah, Butler, Giannis, Gobert, Green, Gasol). No one thought that many of these players were going to become stars a year or two into their careers.
My point in this is that great teams find a way to develop their own players into becoming stars, rather than always looking for ways to add from the outside. Golden State drafted Curry, Klay, and Green, all outside the top 5, and no one would have projected any of them would become this good years ago. The team felt pressure to trade all of them at various points (Klay AND Green were almost traded for Love). But the team patiently committed to them through the difficult early years, and they became great. San Antonio has followed the same model, consistently turning later draft picks into great players (Kawhi, Parker, Ginobili), and a deep supporting staff (Green, Mills, Simmons). The Jazz are another example. No one saw Hayward and Gobert as potential all stars when drafted, but the team has earned a reputation for intensely developing their own talent (they have to given market limitations), and Hayward and Gobert are now clear top 20 players entering their primes.
The Lakers sound ready to commit to this process at the highest level. Luke, Pelinka, and others consistently talk about maximizing the team’s player development resources, and the team is in the process of turning over and strengthening every aspect of its organization to make this happen. We will see if results follow, but the signs are positive.
Now, the responsibility for this developmental process does not just rest with the team. The players have to commit themselves. Kawhi and Curry are obsessive workers who chased excellence, and that work has paid off. Every year they show up a little stronger/faster, a little more efficient, a little more knowledge of the game’s nuances. The Lakers young core must likewise pay the price to be great, day in and day out, year after year. Not only working hard, but using the coaching staff and team resources to intelligently maximize every minute spent in the gym in a way that will translate to on court improvement. If Luke and the front office believe Russell, Ingram, etc. will commit to the process of excellence, then the best path forward may be to stay the course, focus on player development, and build around them.
Fourth, building slow would allow the team to build on top of the existing core, without exchanging them for other players, and thus potentially lead to the deepest collection of assets. Given the difficulty of beating out 29 other teams, it takes an exceptional roster to win a title. Winning is largely driven by having a Lebron-level superstar, but other pieces matter too. Indeed, depth has been a critical factor in distinguishing between the very best teams in recent playoff runs (e.g. Iggy winning finals MVP). Depth allows teams to matchup against different kinds of opponents/styles, insures against injury, and provides more assets to use when making critical roster-tuning moves.
If the team keeps the core together, then in three years it should have an extremely deep core, all with a few years of experience, and all on the same timeline. Russell, Ingram, Fultz/Ball (or whoever is taken in the 17 or 18 lottery), Randle, Zubac, Nance, Clarkson, the 28th pick from Houston – that would be at least 8 young, talented players. And the players are all different and should complement each other well, especially with a few years to learn how to play together..
In addition, having that many young players would provide a rich collection of assets, positioning the team to pounce when favorable trade opportunities arise, without having to worry about gutting the team to make these deals. If the core develops as hopes, how many teams in the league presently run 7-8 deep in talented young players, with several having all star potential?
Given how far the Lakers are from contending (in terms of time needed for further development and total current talent), it would be helpful to spend a few more years in asset acquisition mode, rather than beginning the process of exchanging the current core for better-fitting, more ready-to-win players. Then, when Russell, Ingram, and others are a few years further along, and the Lakers have gathered the most possible assets during this phase of team-building, the team can think about converting those assets into a balanced, contending roster.
Executing the Slow Rebuild Plan
If the team plans to commit to the slow rebuild, with an eye towards contending in 3-4 years, how would they go about executing that plan?
Step one would be to develop the core. As discussed above, maximizing the talent of Russell, Ingram, Randle, Zubac and (hopefully) the upcoming lottery pick would be the first priority and the single most important objective. If the team were to draft Fultz or Ball, Luke could develop 2-3 solid all stars from that core if given enough time and resources, and the remaining players should all be at least solid rotation players.
Step two would be to use resources over the next three years to further add assets that fit with the team’s timing objectives, accentuate the core, and maintain roster/cap flexibility. No shortcuts that burn long term assets for attempted short term gains. Find ways to use cap space and trades to acquire more draft picks and young prospects, rather than talking ourselves into high dollar non-star free agents. To that end, the team would aim to:
- Acquire as many draft picks as possible, both as long term pieces and as trade capital, and devote every possible resource to nailing the picks possessed (which has been a strength the last few years). The draft is the single best place to find “value” when roster building. Furthermore, every significant “star” trade in recent years has included multiple draft picks, and the Lakers need to replenish their stock following the Howard/Nash debacles.
- If young stars won’t sign in free agency (as expected), then rent cap room to add picks and young players. Look for deals along the lines of the Lin deal, which netted the pick which became Nance. There will always be good teams looking to create a little more cap room, or shave salary to get under the tax line, and the Lakers can take advantage.
- Continue to be opportunistic in trading non-critical players for picks and prospects, along the lines of the Lou deal. If Clarkson, Nance, or others become expendable based on future moves, then proactively look for ways to convert them into long term assets.
- Target secondary free agents that will help the young core develop, but push short term deals, even at above market salaries. For example, Miami signed Waiters and James Johnson last year (1 year deals at $2.9M and $4.0M), and Houston added Nene (1 year, $2.9M). These signings were not key long term pieces for these teams, but the players perfectly filled their roles, complemented the cores, and didn’t handicap either team’s long term cap picture.
- Look for opportunities to pick off talented young players from teams that face cap limitations. For example, Utah cannot afford to keep its core together and will face tough choices on Hood, Favors, and Exum. Other midmarket teams will face similar pressures (Toronto, Milwaukee, Memphis, etc.). There may be openings to grab a solid young asset at value.
- Use the CBA’s new provisions allowing more roster spots and use of the D-league to take chances on more high ceiling prospects. The Spurs have had success adding players like Danny Green and Jonathan Simmons using this resource.
After gathering as many assets as possible, and taking the time necessary to develop the core players, step three is to convert the team’s assets into a contending roster, with the goal of making that push around the 2020 offseason. At that point, the front office will have a clear understanding of what they have in each player, and the key players would be entering their prime years. Luke will have had plenty of time to see which players complement his system and each other. The team will be positioned to decide which players to commit to long term and which players to exchange for better-fitting pieces, always bearing in mind trade and free agent opportunities.
And, if managed with an eye towards the future, there should be enough cap flexibility to ADD key pieces to the existing core as they are entering their primes, even after their extensions kick in. The following chart summarizes the team’s cap picture for the next four years:
|17 #28 (Hou)||$1.2||$1.4||$1.6||$2.9|
Key Free Agents
Note that this assumes the following:
- The Lakers keep the 17 and 19 first round picks.
- Black and Young leave.
- Randle is signed to a $20M per year extension in the 18 offseason (with his hold amount showing that year).
- Russell is signed to a max extension in the 19 offseason (hold amount showing that year).
- Ingram’s 20 salary is his hold amount, which is lower than the extension amount he’d get (likely a max at 25% of the cap).
- Nance and Zubac are signed to extensions at $9M and $12M per year, respectively, with their hold amounts showing in 19, and their extension amounts in 20.
- Do not stretch Mozgov and Deng, to allow for maximum room when their deals expire.
As detailed in prior posts, the team has the ability to create significant cap room this year or any of the upcoming summers by making reasonably available moves. Mozgov and Deng can be stretched, creating approximately $10M per year each in savings (at the cost of their contracts being on the books for several extra years). Clarkson should be a movable contract. Nance, Zubac, the Houston pick, etc., could be attached to unwanted contracts to clear room. If the team wants to sign a star free agent that fits our timeline any of the next few offseasons it has the flexibility to make it happen.
Critically, the team can still create significant cap room during the 2020 offseason, when Mozgov, Deng, and Clarkson come off the books, even with the coming core extensions. As a result, the team should not be in a rush to stretch Mozgov and Deng and jeopardize our cap room for 2020-2022, when our core will be more ready to win and that room could be better used. The chart above projects $12M in cap room for the 2020 summer, but that assumes Zubac/Nance using over $20M. Moving them (and possibly Randle) out would create $30-50M in room (when Anthony Davis is 26 and likely considering his future…).
As an example, assume the Lakers land the #2 pick in the 2017 draft and take Lonzo, draft Bam with the #28 pick, stick out the MozDeng contracts, trade Clarkson and Nance during the 18 offseason for an expiring and 2020 late first, and don’t take on additional salary past the 2020 offseason. Entering the 2020 offseason, our roster would look like:
- PG Ball (22)
- SG Russell (24)
- SF Ingram (22)
- PF Randle (25)
- C Zubac (22), Bam (22)
- 2019 lottery pick
- Two 2020 first rounders
- Various 2nd round signings/picks
- About $20M in cap room; much more if the team deals Randle and/or Zubac
At that point, the team would be flush with young players entering their primes and high quality assets. If someone like Davis, Kyrie, Harden, or Porzingis wanted to sign as a free agent, the team could easily create the cap room. If a young superstar was on the trade market, the team would have the assets to make it happen. If Russell/Ingram/Ball “pop” as a sufficiently talented core, then the team would be positioned to fine tune around them, with a rich collection of young players and picks.
To stay on track for that kind of future down the road, the team must stay disciplined with its 2017 summer moves, particularly with respect to free agency. While the team needs outside help, the reality is that free agency is often a place to overpay older players, which does not fit the current objectives. The team desperately needs defense (at all positions, but particularly on the wing), bigs who shoot to open the floor, a penetrating/playmaking backup point guard, and an upgrade at shooting guard (if the Lakers don’t draft Fultz or Lonzo and move Russell there). Improving in these areas will help the current core grow more quickly, strengthen Luke’s system, and lead to material progress in terms of wins and losses, and all this is important. But the team needs to clearly understand what lines it cannot cross to maintain the cap flexibility it wants for 2018 and beyond.
If committed to the slow rebuild, the team should focus this summer on secondary free agents like Mills, Clark, James Johnson, Waiters, Mirotic, Olynyk, Bojan, Hardaway, etc., looking for value and shorter contract terms. If needed, the team could offer above-market 1-2 year deals to avoid tying up long term cap room. A possible offseason could look like:
- Draft Lonzo and Bam
- Decline Black’s option
- Trade Nance for Tyler Ulis
- Sign Ian Clark for 2 years, $8M per, team option for 3rd year
- Sign James Johnson for 1 year, $15M, team option for 3rd year
- PG Ball, Ulis
- SG Russell, Clarkson, Clark
- SF Ingram, Johnson, Brewer
- PF Randle, Deng
- C Zubac, Mozgov, Bam
These moves would address the team’s basic needs without compromising its future cap flexibility. Ulis would provide a young sparkplug backup PG, and clearing Nance would allow Deng to play at PF. Clark would provide shooting and defense on the wing. Johnson would provide a versatile forward who defends, playmakes, and can play small ball center in Luke’s system. The team would only add $8M in free agent salary past this year (Clark), and that would be moveable. Between reasonable trades (Clarkson, Clark, Randle), and the stretch provision, the team would be able to easily make room for George or other max free agents in 2018 and beyond.
I am ultimately skeptical that Magic, Jeanie, and the powers that be have the patience to commit to a slow rebuild. There is just going to be so much pressure to start winning again sooner than this plan would allow. But, putting those pressures to the side, executing a smart, slow, asset-obsessed rebuild offers significant long term advantages, and may actually provide the quickest path to winning a title again.
By retaining and developing our core players, and adding to them once they enter their primes, the team would possess a dynamic group of young players who were all on the same developmental timeline. The team would also have the depth of assets necessary to attract available stars (whether via trade or free agency) once the foundation was ready. I hope the team avoids pursuing shortcuts and instead commits to a slow, steady rebuild, maintaining flexibility to pursue whatever golden opportunities arise along the way.
– Reed (@Reed_nba)