The Blueprint 2: Free Agency and the Lakers

Ever since Dwight Howard left the Lakers, I’ve been generally an advocate of the “keep your books empty, and sign a couple of max players together” strategy that it seemed like Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss were going for.  Signing players to 1 or 2 year deals that wouldn’t put a dent in the Laker books while simply waiting for the “big splash” made sense.  The Lakers are the Lakers after all, they’re located in Los Angeles. What could go wrong?

Well, the strategy simply hasn’t worked.  Carmelo didn’t want to sign here last summer, LaMarcus Aldridge (the only “splash” worthy player who changed teams) never really took the Lakers seriously, and Kevin Love didn’t even give the Lakers a meeting.

Kevin Love’s case, in particular, was eye-opening to me.  If ANYBODY was going to leave their situation, to me it would’ve been him. A) The chemistry was always reported to be awkward between Kevin Love and Lebron James. B) The team seemed to reach a different height after he was injured in the final playoff game in the series against the Celtics. And C) Kevin would surely be a worthy candidate to sign a short term deal to take advantage of the looming cap increase.  Nonetheless, he chose to stay, and that too with a full 5 year max deal.

Ultimately for the same reason that LaMarcus chose the Spurs over the Suns, players today seem to be making the best decision for what gives them the greatest chance to win NOW.  Lebron James will perhaps go down as one of the shrewdest players in the NBA in terms of his professional decisions, and his decision to leave Miami for Cleveland was as much about winning NOW as it was coming back home.  This is also aided by the fact that due to the structure of rookie deals in the current CBA, players have played simply too many years with their original teams before they’re true free agents to join a situation in which they have to wait even longer for a real chance to win a title.  LaMarcus Aldridge just turned 30, does he really want to wait for Phoenix to grow into true contenders? Wouldn’t LaMarcus Aldridge be a bigger star in Phoenix?  He’ll be beloved in San Antonio, for sure, but he’ll have to get in line for the accolades behind Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, and Popovich.

This isn’t to bash the current generation as the curmudgeonly amongst us could, nor am I saying that players are making the absolute right decisions. There’s merit to joining an already successful organization to continue what they’ve already built and there’s merit to joining a young team to push them to success by taking a bigger leadership role in their development.  The pendulum, at least right now, has swung in the direction of the former, and this is where the Lakers have to strategically adjust their approach to team-building, which I believe they have already begun.

Last season, many on twitter advocated for the Lakers to abandon their shoot-for-the-stars approach with their courtship of Carmelo Anthony to instead make more common-sense offer sheets to restricted free agents like Eric Bledsoe.  In hindsight, they were right, but at the time many of us Laker fans were in “why wouldn’t Carmelo choose the Lakers?” mode.  Yes, the Lakers are an attractive option for players as Los Angeles will always be a preferred destination for stars, but the on-court attractiveness matters more then ever.  Yet, as late as this month, LaMarcus Aldridge’s first meeting went so poorly because the focus of the pitch was the off-court, rather than the on-court, which is understandable because the on-court product couldn’t be sold in a positive way.

Now, moving forward, it should be the Lakers sole purpose to create a winning culture with what they have in hopes to one day become attractive enough to be a TRUE destination.  And make no mistake, LA will still have recruitment advantages.  A potential 45 win Lakers team is way more likely to get free agents than a potential 45 win Pistons team (sorry, had to pick one).  The focus this season should be to showcase the future, and hopefully build out depth at the trade deadline and offseason with whichever assets they can cobble together.  It is much more important to give Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell, and Julius Randle the opportunities they need to grow quickly than to give Kobe Bryant a proper send-off, if this indeed is his last season.  It’s important to try to pick up players in bad situations that could potentially flourish in a new environment (like a wing or big in a similar situation as Ty Lawson) and with their gluttony of guards hopefully some team around the league could take a bit of some Swag away from the Lakers.  The good news is that with all the free agency signings and trades the Lakers have made after being turned down by LaMarcus seem to be moving in that direction, but there’s one more step left.

Byron Scott. Paul Pressey. Jim Eyen. Mark Madsen. Not exactly a murderer’s row of a coaching staff.  This is the final obstacle to the Lakers future that must be fixed.  Not only is Byron Scott tragically out of touch, there is no diamond in the rough assistant that is just ready to emerge in that role.  Byron Scott surely can’t be blamed for last year’s win total, but he HAD ONE JOB to develop his young players and still we had games where Ronnie Price started or natural PF Ryan Kelly inexplicably played a majority of his minutes at the Small Forward spot. NBA players around the league now live in Synergy and SportsVU, they read all the stats, they are all trying to exploit every single piece of information at their disposal, and it does not reflect highly that the Lakers head coach has proudly ignored a lot of it.  It is time for the Lakers coaching staff to grow up, or get out.

All in all, I’m VERY excited about the young core the Lakers have built.  Jordan Clarkson at the 46th pick is an absolute franchise-altering steal, D’Angelo Russell will be just fine, and Julius Randle looks great.  Hibbert will fit in nicely, Brandon Bass will be a great mentor for Randle, and a (Basketball Gods-willing) healthy Kobe Bryant will have fun running around with this young guns as he rides off into the sunset.

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