The Lakers and Angels are operating without a clue. The Lakers just experienced two humiliating meetings with forward LaMarcus Aldridge and are about to strike out big time on this year's free agent season. The Angels just watched their GM resign, offering more material for a case study on sports team mismanagement.
First, let's start with the Lakers. I was very encouraged by their decision to draft D'Angelo Russell, who could be a superstar. It was the kind of forward thinking move that we hadn't seen from them in a long time. But then time came for free agency, and the Lakers showed they hadn't evolved quite so much.
Their first mistake was deciding to even go after Aldridge. As great as Aldridge is, he's still only about the 16th best player in the NBA. He just had his best season ever, but he'll turn 30 this month, and it's likely that he's reached his peak. The Lakers need young up-and-coming players to grow and develop with Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson. They don't need a guy beginning the downside of his career.
Furthermore Aldridge is a power forward who often likes to play away from the basket and take mid-range jump shots. He's most effective when someone else plays the center position and protects the rim. The Lakers already have a young power forward in Randle, who probably isn't big enough to play center. If the Lakers want to develop Randle, then he'll need playing time, but that will have to come at the four position. That means Aldridge would have to be uncomfortable playing center if he joined the Lakers.
I'm not sure why Aldridge even took a meeting with the Lakers. Or at least why he met with them first. Perhaps it's because he lives close to Kobe Bryant in Newport Beach. But hopefully the Lakers got a wakeup call when Aldridge was disappointed by the Lakers lack of analytics. While teams like Houston and San Antonio can quantify exactly how Aldridge could be in their systems, the Lakers could only talk about the marketing opportunities that came with playing in LA. While those opportunities are considerably greater than in other cities, Aldridge apparently wants to win basketball games.
The most embarrassing line from Mike Bresnahan's LA Times story was:
"The Lakers contended that their analytics pitch would have been stronger if they had a better roster last season and privately expressed envy that Houston's presentation could be bolstered by projections and on-court analysis of a team that already had James Harden and Howard."
That's one of the saddest sentences ever written about the Lakers. Perhaps if they had been using analytics for the past five years like the Rockets, then they would have a better roster
The Laker humiliation continued this week when quality center Greg Monroe chose the Milwaukee Bucks over LA, despite both teams offering the same contract. While Monroe isn't a superstar, at 25, he's entering the prime of his career. He would have been a good player to pair in the frontcourt with Randle. But evidently, he couldn't care less about the marketing opportunities in LA, and figured he'd win more games on a team with Jabari Parker, Michael Carter-Williams, Giannis Antetokounmpo, OJ Mayo, and Khris Middleton. He's right. At least in the short-term.
This isn't easy for Lakers fans to accept, but right now they need to be patient and stockpile as many young players as possible. Using analytics could help. These days, NBA rookies take longer to develop because they're coming into the league at just 19 years of age. As much as I love D'Angelo Russell, the Lakers have to realize it will take several years for him to become a superstar. The Stephen Curry-led Golden State Warriors gradually improved from Western Conference also-ran to playoff team to eventually an NBA champion. Curry won the MVP award in his sixth season, and to be frank, that was awfully quick.
NBA stars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, and Curry all missed the playoffs in their first season. More than likely than not, a team with Russell and Randle will miss the playoffs this year too. Even with Aldridge or Monroe, they probably would have missed the playoffs in a stacked West. But if Russell turns into a superstar, and Randle turns out to be pretty good, then trust me, the Lakers will have no trouble signing free agents.
The Lakers lack of patience extends into their own front office. On KPCC Radio yesterday, Lakers president Jeanie Buss claimed her brother Jim has just two more years to get the Purple and Gold to the Western Conference finals. Jeanie said:
"Well, I asked my brother, how long until we're back into contention? And when I say 'contention,' that means past the second round, so either the Western Conference finals or the NBA Finals," she said. "And he told me that it would take three years to rebuild it. So we've just finished Year 1 of that three-year [plan]. So we have two more years until he feels that we'll be back into going past the second round in the playoffs."
Never mind that Jim should take some responsibility for the Lakers current mess. But as I noted before, three years to get near the top of a loaded Western Conference is totally unrealistic. Jeanie has been working in the NBA for over 20 years. For the past 15 years, she's been dating arguably the greatest coach in NBA history. She should know her brother is delusional. And Jim is setting himself up for failure with that kind of a promise.
Down in Orange County, the Angels have been dealing with delusions of their own. Reportedly, GM Jerry DiPoto was frustrated that his statistical analytics reports were being ignored by manager Mike Scioscia. According to Fox Sports:
"Dipoto, according to sources, believes that the coaches too often rely on "feel" while teams such as the AL West-leading Astros are at the forefront of incorporating data. The coaches, in turn, seemingly do not trust the information they are given, and either are not willing or able to translate it for the players."
Personally, I believe that both men are wrong, and the Angels probably should move forward with different leadership. For Scioscia, it's embarrassing that he steadfastly refuses to adapt with the times. I've worked for a Major League Baseball team before, and I've seen first-hand how statistical reports can win ballgames. They can help determine the most effective defensive positioning. They can point out favorable matchups. And they can call attention to different strategies that can give one team an advantage over another.
While Scioscia was always effective using the old methods, it's not surprising that the Angels have struggled while almost every other team in the sport evolved. If he refuses to take advantage of all the information in front of him, then he's not giving his team the best chance to win each night. And if he continues to refuse to listen to new ideas, then the Angels aren't going to be able to hire a great GM to replace DiPoto.
That all being said, not all GMs who use analytics are great. Now that pretty much every team is using them, teams have to find new methods to get ahead. Also, some teams are better than others at using and developing analytics.
DiPoto's first mistake with the Angels was firing Scioscia's hitting coach Mickey Hatcher back in 2012. Generally, a manager should have the right to pick his own coaching staff, even if the GM disagrees with his approach. By firing Hatcher just one month into that season, without Scioscia's consent, DiPoto was essentially asking to have a disharmonious relationship with his manager.
DiPoto also has take responsibility for the signings of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Pujols hasn't been a total bust, but he's clearly not worth the salary. Hamilton was obviously a major risk that never should have been taken. DiPoto also spent a pretty penny on a slew of lousy pitchers like Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson, Sean Burnett, and Ryan Madson. It was fairly clear that none of those deals would work out at the time. I'm not sure which analytics told him otherwise.
DiPoto did take over an organization with a terrible farm system, and has slowly been trying to bring it back. He also did manage to put together an older roster that surprisingly had the best record in the majors last year. Having the game's best player in Mike Trout certainly helps. But DiPoto's overall record has been a mixed bag.
I also thought the Angels handling of Josh Hamilton earlier this year was poor. When Hamilton, a former drug addict, voluntarily admitted that he'd had a relapse, the Angels antagonized him. Rather than give Hamilton the support that he obviously needed, the Angels tried to get their own player suspended, and fought to void his contract when that definitely wasn't going to happen. In the end, the Angels sent Hamilton to a division rival for basically nothing, and they are paying nearly all of his remaining salary. But the move also sent a message around the league that the Angels aren't an organization that always has their players back.
With DiPoto gone, Angels owner Arte Moreno should take the opportunity to remake his organization into one that's both forward-thinking and cares for its players. With attendance at the "Big A" falling, a bit of a makeover wouldn't hurt.