The Lakers have never seemed more lost. Currently sporting a 16-41 record (and an awkward three-game winning streak) it seems like the Lakers of the next decade may resemble the Chicago Bulls post-Jordan or the Boston Celtics post-Bird.
The post-Magic Lakers of the 1990s got back on track in just a few years as shrewd GM Jerry West put together a talented young team that only missed the playoffs once. He used that core to attract Shaquille O'Neal and the Lakers eventually got back to the NBA's elite.
Whether the Lakers want to admit it or not, they're already in the post-Kobe era, as he's proven unable to stay healthy and being an elite player for a prolonged period of time.
As the Lakers prepare for their next move, the NBA has never looked more different. The top-two teams in each conference are Golden State, Memphis, Atlanta, and Toronto. Deep talented young teams look light years ahead of teams led by established superstars.
So what can the Lakers do to get back on top? Here are some ideas:
1) Hire a new dynamic general manager
I'm honestly not sure who is calling the shots with the Lakers these days. Some say it's Jim Buss. Others claim it's Mitch Kupchak. If you ask either of them, they'll say it's a combination of the two. I've always liked Kupchak and I've always been critical of Buss. But if both of them are in charge, then both of them should be held accountable for the obvious strategic blunders that the Lakers have made. I've felt like Nostradamus writing about them on this web site before, but really any semi-intelligent basketball fan could see their mistakes a mile away.
I think that Kupchak has proven effective at supplementing a team led by superstars, but he hasn't proven able to acquire talented young assets on the cheap, unlike other GMs in the league. Considering Buss rarely defends himself in the media, it's easy to say that he hasn't proven himself at all. At least that's what potential free agents seem to believe.
The February 5 issue of Sports Illustrated had a feature article on Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri. The story chronicled Ujiri's rise from unpaid international scout to successful NBA GM. Ujiri used to sleep in hallways in Africa trying to find talented players, and he eventually guided the Denver Nuggets to a 57-win season after trading "superstar" Carmelo Anthony. He now has Toronto near the top of the league. It's hard to imagine anyone working harder to become an NBA GM than Ujiri.
Contrast that with Buss who jerked around for 20 years before his dad decided it was time to put him in the front office of the most prestigious organization in all of basketball.
Today, the best game's GMs are people like R.C. Buford in San Antonio, Sam Presti in Oklahoma City, Neil Olshey in Portland, Daryl Morey in Houston, Bob Myers in Golden State, and Ujiri. Kupchak and Buss don't make moves that remotely resemble theirs.
It's time for the Lakers to give Kupchak his golden parachute, and let Buss hold the title of "co-owner and nothing else." Then they can bring in a forward-thinking GM who will do some of the things that I advocate for below.
2) Hire the best scouts
If the Lakers are going to make it back, they're going to need to find great talent that's under the radar. In the next few years, they're going to lose two first draft picks because of the Steve Nash and Dwight Howard trades. They are going to find increasing difficulties in free agency, as most stars are incentivized to stay with their current teams, and other stars want to win right away.
But the Lakers haven't proven effective at finding diamonds in the rough. During the 2011 NBA Lockout, the Lakers fired all of their scouts and Assistant GM Ronnie Lester in an effort to save money. This is the same Laker organization that's arguably the most valuable in the NBA. This is one of the dumbest decisions in Laker history.
Scouting in the lifeblood of any organization. And it needs to happen year-round, regardless of whether or not there's an NBA lockout. International players weren't locked out. College players weren't locked out. There were games to watch and players to scout.
Lester is now doing a nice job as a scout for the Phoenix Suns. The Lakers have shown that they aren't loyal to their scouts in the worst of times. And the current head of the Lakers scouting department is Jesse Buss, son of Jerry. The Assistant Director of Scouting is Ryan West, son of the other Jerry. The Lakers didn't become the NBA's winningest organization through nepotism. They did it by hiring the best people at their jobs.
I guess you could give the Jesse and Ryan duo credit for making a nice find in Jordan Clarkson in the second round. And it's not necessarily their fault that Julius Randle is out for the year. But the Lakers scouts are really going to need to go above and beyond the call when it comes to finding great players.
That could mean trading in the draft to find a budding star like Kawhi Leonard at No. 15, which the Spurs did. It could mean finding an undervalued athletic second rounder like Isaiah Thomas, who the Lakers passed on in the 2011 Draft in favor of Andrew Goudelock and Darius Morris. It could mean hanging onto a draft pick like Patrick Beverley, rather than dumping him off to the Miami Heat, which they did in 2009.
Recently reports suggested that the Lakers were very interested in guard Goran Dragic. They may try to sign him in the offseason to a big deal that guarantees he's a Laker through the age of 33, when he'll probably be past his prime.
It would have been nice if Laker scouts recognized Dragic was worth getting before he got good though. The Suns traded for him on draft day in 2008 for Malik Hairston. Dragic was later traded to Houston for mediocre point guard Aaron Brooks. He then signed back with Phoenix as a replacement for Steve Nash in 2012. It's a shame the Lakers never tried to acquire him between 2008-12.
Great scouts will find talent at all levels of college. They'll discover the best players overseas. They will notice quality guys that other organizations have mistakenly discarded.
With a $3 billion cable deal, and a strict salary cap, the Lakers may as well use their financial advantage to sign the top scouts from places like San Antonio, where they've figured out how spot good players.
3) Use Analytics
At the time of this writing, the top three teams in the Western Conference were the Golden State Warriors, the Memphis Grizzlies, and the Houston Rockets. All three of them are devotees of advance statistical metrics that pick up on trends that most people miss.
The Warriors analytical capabilities are outlined in this must-read article. The Grizzlies hired former ESPN numbers guru John Hollinger and have done very well. The Rockets have long been at the forefront of this movement under MIT grad Daryl Morey.
I'm not suggesting that analytics be used to replace scouting. I'm also not necessarily suggesting that numbers-centric GMs are better than scout-centric GMs. But what I am advocating for is information.
Today's NBA is ridiculously competitive. The Western Conference is as competitive as it's ever been. What separates the elite teams from the rest is their ability to obtain and decipher information about players and strategies.
The Lakers have always been behind the curve when it comes to analytics. They were one of the last teams in the league to install motion-tracking cameras at their home arena, and only did so when the league mandated it.
It's as if Jim Buss went up to the podium and said: "You know all that computer stuff is cute and all, but we really think we can win by using less information than the Warriors."
The Lakers should use their financial advantage to hire the smartest analytical minds available. They should be building incredibly intricate computer systems that measure skills and trends that other organizations can't see. They should be leaders in the analytical space, not followers.
4) Employ Team Ball
The Lakers have long operated under the "Superstar Theorem." It basically states that whomever has the best collection of 2-3 superstars will win the title. For years it worked. They had Kobe and Shaq, and that gave way to Kobe and Pau Gasol.
But in today's NBA, it's very difficult to win by employing the "Superstar Theorem." The current NBA labor deal makes it very hard to sign quality supporting players around superstars. The deal also incentivizes stars to stay with their current teams, so when they are free agents, they're towards the end of their peak.
The Miami Heat discovered the limitations of the "Superstar Theorem" last year, losing to a deep Spurs squad in the Finals. The Heat had LeBron, but they had no depth. They had Dwayne Wade, but he was on his last legs. There were probably 5 Western Conference teams that were better.
This year's top teams are deep and are made up of parts that fit well together. The Warriors haven't drafted higher than sixth, but they have a collection of players that are effective as a unit. The Atlanta Hawks have no superstars, but they lead the East by mile.
Conversely, the Cleveland Cavaliers have struggled melding superstars together. While they are playing well now, LeBron is a superstar because he's the ultimate team player. Even he's showing signs of age though.
Rather than try to build towards a quality balanced team in the offseason, the Lakers prioritized signing Carmelo Anthony. They had Joel Silver produce a movie in his honor. Yet Anthony has proven he's a limited superstar, and he's breaking down physically too. The Lakers wound up using some of their cap space on Nick Young, who thinks he's a superstar, but plays the antithesis of team ball, refusing to pass or defend.
The Lakers won't win by gunning for every superstar they see. Instead they should take the approach that Jerry West took when he rebuilt the Lakers in the mid-90s with guys like Eddie Jones, Cedric Ceballos, Nick Van Exel, Elden Campbell, Vlade Divac, Anthony Peeler, and George Lynch. None of them were perfect players, but put together they made for a good team.
5) Hire an innovative and dynamic head coach
I know that Laker fans like Byron Scott. I know that Magic Johnson likes Byron Scott. Heck, even I like Byron Scott. He was one of my favorite players when I was younger. But let's be honest... Byron Scott is not going to be the guy who can turn this around.
Byron Scott had a great deal of success more than a decade ago, coaching an up-and-coming team with Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson, Kenyon Martin, and Kerry Kittles. His stay ended prematurely when Kidd basically forced him out.
Scott went onto New Orleans where he couldn't win with Baron Davis. He did have success with a young Chris Paul, but then his team seemed to give up on him, and he got dismissed there too.
Scott failed to win with any of Cleveland's young talent in a very weak Eastern Conference.
Around the league, there are a variety of dynamic head coaches coming out of the woodwork to be successful. Steve Kerr has infused the Warriors with energy and has them playing fantastic team ball. Mike Budenholzer ended his long tenure as a Spurs assistant and now is working wonders with the Hawks.
Those guys were risky hires in that they had no coaching experience, but each brought outside-the-box ideas and took their teams to the next level. Byron Scott had head coaching experience, but I know enough about him to know that he's not going to do anything unique or interesting to get the Lakers to the next level.
He shuns the three-point shot at a time when it's shown to be an effective way to score in the NBA. He preaches defense, which is important, but the Lakers are last in the league in points allowed. It shows that Scott isn't effective in getting through to his team, since a huge component of defense is effort.
If the Lakers want to get back on top, they're going to need to find a new coach. One name that I like is Kevin Ollie, who won a national title at UConn, but got stuck in a terrible conference situation there. Tony Bennett from the University of Virginia might also make for an interesting NBA coach. I also like Portland assistant David Vanterpool, Cleveland assistant Tyronn Lue, and Chicago assistant Adrian Griffin.
There's also a chance that Tom Thibodeau could leave Chicago, in which case, he's a must-hire.
The Lakers should remember that Pat Riley and Mike Dunleavy weren't the biggest names when they were hired. Yet both proved to be winners. The Lakers don't need a big name. They just need a voice that will offer something unique.