Lakers 'faith' may lead to folly

There's been a healthy debate about the Lakers' decision to sign Kobe Bryant to a two-year $48.5 million extension. Some fans believe that the Lakers should be loyal to one of their greatest players. They see Bryant as having greater value to the franchise than his large contract pays, and they believe he'll come back and be effective. Others see Bryant as eating up an enormous amount of cap space, and they believe his contract will prevent the team from signing enough quality free agents to contend for a title.

To me, the biggest problem with this signing was the timing. Kobe Bryant may wind up playing great for the next three years, but why sign him now? The Lakers would have been better off waiting until the end of the season, and seeing how he returned from a torn achilles at the age of 35. Few NBA players have ever been effective after suffering that injury, and while Kobe is a special player, he's still logged over 45,000 minutes in his NBA career (12th all-time).

The best investors always act on the most information possible. Before the Lakers used one-third of their salary cap on one player, it would have been smart to wait until they had as much information about his capabilities as possible. It's not like Bryant would have signed with another team if he played extremely well this season, especially considering the Lakers can pay him more than anyone.

Lakers owner/executive Jim Buss summed up his reasons in one ridiculous quote:

"We didn't see the point of waiting," said Buss. "As far as trusting Kobe coming back on the court, you're a fool if you don't think he's going to [play well]. I have 100% faith."
So the Lakers are assuming Kobe will play well out of faith? Really? Faith? When did the Lakers become the team that decided to ignore science? Science says that even the greatest NBA players break down in their late 30s. Science says that returning from a torn achilles in the NBA is extremely difficult, and most players who have suffered that injury have come back as a shell of their former selves.

A recent trend in the NBA has seen winning teams like the Spurs, Thunder, Rockets, and Grizzlies employ statistical analysis and advanced scouting tools to become successful. The NBA's most recent labor deal restricts teams' flexibility in terms of bringing in big name players under a tight salary cap and a punitive luxury tax. As a result, more teams are turning to new methods to identify and develop undervalued talent.

For years, the Lakers have lagged behind the rest of the league in innovation. They barely use any sabermetrics and their scouting operations have produced little in the way of results. Their strategy has always been to aggressively pursue the best superstars available, which worked for a long time, until now. While successful teams are making decisions based on science, the Lakers are acting on faith.

I think I can imagine some of Jim Buss' conversations over the past few years. Perhaps he also said:

  • "Sure, we can play Kobe Bryant for 48 minutes a game, and we won't risk injury to a 16-year veteran. You're a fool if you don't think that. I have 100% faith."

  • "Of course we should hire Mike D'Antoni, even though his system doesn't suit our personnel at all, and 11-time NBA champion Phil Jackson is willing to take the job. I have 100% faith in Mike."

  • "Of course Dwight Howard is going to re-sign with us if we buy billboards begging him to stay. Even though we have an aging roster and a coach who doesn't suit his game, we're the Lakers and Dwight will stay. I have 100% faith."

  • "Yeah, Steve Nash can absolutely play at a Hall of Fame level at age 39. While most point guards slow down in their late-30s, Nash keeps in great shape. You're a fool if you don't think he's going to play well. I have 100% faith."

  • "There's no problem with rushing Dwight Howard back from his herniated disc surgery. He'll play great right away. I have 100% faith."

  • "Yes, we should definitely hire Mike Brown as our head coach over Brian Shaw. Even though Mike won't have a training camp in a lockout shortened season, and Shaw has the respect of our players and can run a system that fits with our personnel. We disagree with everyone in the basketball world and think Mike Brown is the perfect coach for the Lakers. I have 100% faith."

Over the past three years, Jim Buss and the Lakers have made the wrong decision virtually every time. And it's not like I'm saying this because I have the benefit of hindsight. These were all points that were made at the time the poor decisions took place.

Granted, I didn't think the Dwight Howard trade would turn out as badly as it did. But it was obvious by midseason that it wasn't going to work (partially because they handled him so poorly), and back then I advocated the Lakers trade Howard and break up the team. After the season, noting that next year's NBA draft was going to be one for the ages, I again said that the Lakers would be best off dismantling their team.

The worst place in the NBA to be is at the playoff fringe. That's where the Lakers are right now. When Kobe Bryant comes back, the Lakers will make a run for a low-playoff seed that will take them out of the draft lottery in a year that several potential superstars could be picked.

Some Laker fans are optimistic that they can sign a high profile free agent in the offseason, but that is wishful thinking. LeBron James to LA is a pipe dream. Carmelo Anthony won't come here if D'Antoni is still the coach, and even if they change coaches, there are many who doubt that Anthony is a championship player. None of the other potential free agents are all that appealing, as few of the league's best stars are really available.

The current NBA labor deal makes it very unlikely that a top free agent will just sign somewhere else, because his current team can always pay him more money. The best way to obtain a superstar is through a trade or the draft. The Lakers literally have no tradable assets next offseason. And they've missed out on opportunities to add multiple draft picks this year. Depending on their finish in 2014, they may wind up with no shot at some of the best prospects in this year's draft.

I've been a huge fan of Kobe Bryant over his long NBA career, and I would love to see him play two more years with the Lakers. But I only want to see him in purple and gold if the team can realistically compete for a championship. Bryant may very well come back from his injury be one of the best players in the league again. However, I'd feel a lot better about the Lakers' chances to succeed if they were an organization that acted on things like information, facts, data, and observation. Instead they are an organization that acts on faith. And I'm not sure if their faith will be rewarded.

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