Welcome to a new series for FB&G for the 2016 off-season. This series will focus on team building and various paths the Lakers have open to them for the upcoming off-season. We will try to cover a variety of scenarios the Lakers could feasibly take and what moves might be involved with that specific approach. This installment will focus on trying to become a contender as quickly as possible.
The past few seasons have seen the Lakers deal with a variety of structural roster issues which have hindered their potential to compete. Whether it was the large amount of money committed to Kobe Bryant, their lack of young players who were ready to contribute to a highly competitive team, or their lack of secure draft picks, the team simply did not have the type of resources available to them to foster a winning team.
The Lakers were also intent on trying to chase big fish in free agency, but with limited capital to sign more than one “max” level player, they eventually struck out on every star they chased. Rather than panic spend on players a tier below, the team tried to roll over their cap space for future seasons while also taking chances on short term veterans who might help bolster the win column. Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, Jordan Hill, Ed Davis, Roy Hibbert, etc all took turns as key rotation pieces.
These acquisitions did not hamper future spending potential nor did they lead to many wins. The result, then, was a bunch of losses which helped the Lakers keep their lottery picks and a boatload of cap space heading into a summer where the cap will go up by roughly $25 million.
As it stands the Lakers now have a roster with three first round picks (Russell, Randle, Nance), a 2nd round pick who has outperformed his draft slot (Clarkson), an incoming lottery pick (#2 overall), and upwards of $60 million in cap space to spend on free agents. In other words, the Lakers now have some tools to try and construct a roster which can make the suffering of the past three seasons a distant memory.
The question, of course, is how to best go about that. We have already discussed a slow and steady approach, but an alternative to that method is to go all-in on the idea of building a contender as quickly as possible. How would they go about executing such a plan?
I’m glad you asked…
1). Hold an auction for the #2 overall pick. Look, the Lakers may not end up trading this pick, but in a draft widely considered to have two “elite” level prospects, having one of the top two picks is a great place to be. Fielding calls from other teams who may want to exchange a high functioning player for a cost controlled lottery talent might be the best path back to quickly contending. I am not going to speculate on who might be available — that’s why you take calls and gauge interest — but if you can grab an all-star player for a draft pick, I would imagine that should be considered.
2). Trade one or more of the young core as well. In the same spirit as trading the draft pick, the Lakers now have some young assets who might have value to other teams. Strategically, the Lakers have two power forwards and two big, point/combo guards who are part of their core. In other words, there is a bit of redundancy. If a team has a strong interest in Julius Randle, why not see what they want? The same for Nance. If a team wants to swap a star player for Russell and Nance, shouldn’t you at least consider it? If the goal is to win more games next year and start to push the Lakers towards the playoff mix, the answer might be yes.
3). If you execute the types of trades listed above, chase the top free agents available with the carrot of coming to play with established veterans in Los Angeles for the Lakers. I have doubts Kevin Durant or Al Horford entertain the idea of playing in LA with the Lakers’ young core, but would they come to play with another all-star or two? That’s the calculus the Lakers are likely to consider and would be actively exploring via their network of sources within the player and agent community.
4). Spend the money now. While there’s an argument to be made for rolling over some of the cap space (maybe 10 million or so) to the next summer to ensure being able to chase a max level player in 2017, spending the majority of the cap space now means a stronger pitch to this year’s crop. By telling them “we can sign two max players — find a friend and come play for the Lakers”, the pot is sweetened and the team is more enticing. Multiple times Mitch Kupchak has lamented the team’s inability to make this type of pitch to FA’s in the past, but this season offers the perfect (and maybe only real) opportunity to do so.
This is not the path I would support, but I can understand the argument for it. As high as many people (including myself) are on the Lakers’ young talent, there are no guarantees they become as good as their respective ceilings suggest they can. Turning those players, if possible, into already high performing players who can provide the type of course correction everyone hopes for is worth exploring.
Further, the future brings even more unknowns. Will there be a lockout after the 2017 season? If so, what will a new CBA look like? We are already seeing how the current CBA seeks out parity, punishing big spending teams. These spending penalties limit how long teams can keep a viable core of “stars” together and still have room for the types of role players who prop open the windows of contending teams. In a way, the above path is as much about striking while the iron is hot and doing what is possible within the framework of the current rules before the goalposts are potentially moved again.
That said, I must repeat, I would not go this route. And for a variety of reasons.
One of my favorite parts of being a sports fan is watching the organic growth of the players — especially young players. Watching players come into their own and seeing the hard work pay off is tremendously rewarding for me. Seeing a player get to that point in a their career where the light bulb turns; where maturity (mental and physical) meets skill development…there’s few things better to me. To have the opportunity to do that with not one, but potentially 3 or 4 different players? Why would I want to give that up?
Also, despite an urgency to want to improve, more time to evaluate often means a more informed decision. Maybe trading one or more of the young players is the right move. I would argue, though, that we simply do not have enough information to make that call now. Letting more time pass allows for better evaluation, not only of the players, but of team needs and how the puzzle pieces fit together.
Still, though, I find it impossible to ignore that the path laid out above isn’t, at least somewhat, under consideration. Especially when we get quotes about “everything being on the table” from the team’s GM and with a self-imposed timeline for contention lurking in the background. If nothing else, it makes for an interesting debate and, potentially, an even more interesting summer.