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.