With each passing day it seems like the Lakers have no idea what they're doing. In listening to 710 AM ESPN Radio yesterday, ace reporter Ramona Shelburne noted the Lakers have no vision for what they want to do next. She could not be more right.
In the Lakers defense, this was always going to be a tough time in the franchise's history. The Boston Celtics took nearly 20 years to recover from the retirements of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. The Chicago Bulls needed more than a decade to move past Michael Jordan. The Lakers hit a rough patch in the early 90s after Magic Johnson suddenly left the game, but Jerry West's brilliance got them back to playoff level before they added Shaq and Kobe in 1996.
The Lakers plan for this "late and post-Kobe" era was to build around Dwight Howard. That wasn't a bad plan and I supported it at the time. Unfortunately, they could not have bungled his time here any worse. Mike D'Antoni was the worst possible coach for Howard, and after dismissing any possibility that Phil Jackson could be involved with the organization, Howard left for Houston.
At that point - or even a little before - the Lakers should have begun rebuilding for the future. Instead they continued to pursue the same "Superstar Strategy" that has been a hallmark of the franchise. But there's a few problems with the "Superstar Strategy" in 2014, and specifically with the Lakers execution of it this time around:
1) By guaranteeing an injured and aging Kobe Bryant $48 million, they severely limited their ability to bring in multiple superstars. And coming off of two catastrophic injuries, it's highly questionable the Bryant will ever play like a superstar again. They should have at least waited to re-sign Bryant until after the season, when they could evaluate his status better.
2) The NBA's new collective bargaining agreement makes it extremely difficult for superstars to leave their teams. Stars will either receive more money by staying with their original team (such as Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers), or teams can use restricted free agency to match competitive offers. I noted all of this last year in more detail.
3) When superstars become available, they tend to be older. As a result, a "Superstar Strategy" offers only a short window for success. The Miami Heat saw their window last four years, and I'd argue that 4-5 Western Conference teams were better than them this year. Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh have been showing their age for a while. Similarly the Boston Celtics won a title in 2008, but they were on their last legs by the 2010 NBA Finals.
4) The NBA's salary cap rules make it difficult to surround superstar-laden teams with any support. The Miami Heat had barely any depth this season, and they were exposed in the NBA Finals. Similarly if a star player does go down, then the team has no margin for error.
5) Trading is often the best way to obtain a superstar. The Lakers received Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard in trades. Heck, they even got the draft picks for Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Kobe Bryant in trades. For the past two seasons, the Lakers have had virtually no assets to trade away.
6) Superstar players no longer trust the Lakers management. Magic Johnson and Phil Jackson have been bashing Jim Buss for a while. Multiple media members (including myself) have been heavily critical of Buss as well. Yet, Buss continues to stay silent, seemingly oblivious to the damage the Laker brand is taking.
It's much more difficult to build a team with multiple good young players, but it's the best way to go for the long-term. The Lakers' pursuit of Carmelo Anthony was absolutely nuts. Anthony is 30 years old and outside of a nice 2009 season in Denver, he's never been able to lead a team. He couldn't even lead the Knicks the playoffs in the worst Eastern Conference I've ever seen.
Anthony is going to continue to age, and with no help around him in the near-future, he'd have been setup for failure in LA. Supposedly, the Lakers wanted to pair him with Pau Gasol, but his game has been in steady decline since 2011. Bringing him back made little sense.
The Lakers could have used this offseason to try and get younger and more athletic, but they seemingly made no effort to sign up-and-coming players like Eric Bledsoe, Lance Stephenson, and Isaiah Thomas. They did make a great draft pick in Julius Randle - although at No. 7 any team would have been stupid not to take him. Yet the Lakers might already be bungling his development.
By not having a full-time head coach in place, Randle isn't learning the system he's going to play this upcoming season while competing in Summer League games. By acquiring perennial underachiever Carlos Boozer today, they've taken playing time away from Randle as well. I still think Randle will be a pretty good NBA player. But he's still just 19-years old, so his development will be a process. I'm not sure if the Lakers really have a vision for how that process might unfold.
Entering next season, the Lakers will send out much of the same awful roster they went with last year. They do have Kobe Bryant back, but he's a huge question mark with his age and injuries. They do have one-year rental in Jeremy Lin, but ironically he'd better off if D'Antoni were still the coach. They also added Boozer, but evidently, the Chicago Bulls think Gasol is a better player right now. The one major commitment the Lakers made was to Nick Young, a second-rate scorer who can do nothing but score - and he's locked up until age 33.
The Lakers decision not to hire a coach yet is one that will probably backfire. While they thought it would entice a superstar free agent to have a say in their coaching hire, it was something that Jordan Farmar cited in his decision to sign with the Clippers. Other free agents weren't sure which system the team would run. The coaching vacancy is probably stunting the development of Randle and rookie Jordan Clarkson as they go through Summer League without a real plan. And whoever does get hired (probably Byron Scott at this point) will have a smaller pool of assistants available to put on his staff.
It appears that the Lakers' "vision" for the future is to sit back and hope for next year's superstars like Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Marc Gasol. But that's a major roll of the dice. On the bright side, the Lakers may wind up with a top-five pick, so their first round draft selection would be prevented from going to Phoenix as part of the Steve Nash trade.
But the Lakers would be best-served by taking tangible steps to get younger and to build for the future, rather than swinging and missing at star NBA players who probably won't make them that much better.