As with seemingly every facet of the on court and off court game in the past couple of years, the Los Angeles Lakers fell short again last night. Boston Celtics All-NBA point guard Rajon Rondo was dealt to the Dallas Mavericks for a conditional first round pick, a second round pick, Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson and a nearly $13 million trade exception. Rondo will team with a veritable All-Star starting five, standing alongside Monta Ellis, Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler, hoping to win their second NBA title at the end of the season.
The Lakers were one of a handful of teams jockeying for the point guard's services, with the Houston Rockets, Sacramento Kings and New York Knicks also talking to Boston GM Danny Ainge. LA's offer, as reported by Ramona Shelburne looked a little something like this:
Adding to @ESPNSteinLine report on Rondo from yesterday. Sources tell ESPN the Lakers also offered Boston multiple picks & Nash for Rondo— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) December 18, 2014
At this point, it's not clear exactly what draft picks the Lakers were offering--under certain conditions, they could send their 2015 first round selection (if indeed it does not go to Phoenix), Houston's first, as well as their own 2019 first rounder. There's also a bevy of second rounders they could have offered, though if we can derive anything from the Mavericks' offer, it's that a first round selection was crucial. Steve Nash's inclusion here is quite elementary--he's not playing the rest of the season and as shown by his absence on the Lakers' bench this entire year, his presence on the roster is exclusively as salary cap ballast.
While this was a failed endeavor on the part of LA's front office, that's not entirely the end of the story. It's not so much that the Lakers didn't trade for Rondo. The bigger question is what their pursuit means to their mindset. The questions arising from the attempt are almost as fascinating as the offer itself.
How could they even think of dealing another first round pick? Why would they trade anything for a player that they could just sign outright this summer when he becomes a free agent? What were the Lakers even doing trying to obtain a player when they're "supposed" to be losing? Does their dalliance with Boston mean that the front office has no interest in throwing this season away?
Not necessarily. Just like everything else in life, this isn't a black and white issue. There are more than likely many, many shades of grey.
The reports of trade talks, or at least those that have gotten to the point where the Lakers were discussing players and picks, shows that the front office has not completely submitted to the idea of losing out. If LA were set on guaranteeing themselves that high draft pick, much like the Celtics themselves and Philadelphia, trading out assets and bringing in veterans who can contribute wouldn't even be in the equation. Whether it be rife speculation or more substantiated reports like this one, it's apparent to me that the Lakers are as active as ever, trying to make their team better and stop this freefall. The one sentence conclusion: a full-on rebuild is not in the cards right now.
When asked this past summer why his frustration level wasn't higher after the front office came up empty in their pursuits of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Bosh (and to a lesser extent, Kyle Lowry and Lance Stephenson), Kobe was surprisingly zen. He retorted that this was not a situation like the 2004-2005 season, in which the Lakers were
smushing cutting costs and spurning opportunities to spend on veteran free agents. LA isn't in full break-it-down-and-build-back-up mode. They're retooling more than anything...or at the very least, they believe they are.
This isn't to say that the Lakers are foolish enough to try and build a playoff team from the parts of one that's already 10 games under .500 in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. No reasonable additions, given the assets on hand and the players available, could turn this squad around considering their defensive deficiencies and obvious coaching shortcomings.
So, where does that leave this team? Somewhere in the middle. Shades of grey.
They're not trying to tank, at least not actively. But they're not trying to build up an instant winner. What the Lakers are doing--according to all signs I've seen--is build up a winner in any way that they can. There's no "one way" to do it. If they lose the next 60 games in a row, then the Lakers could begrudgingly build through the draft. If they win the next 60 and get into the playoffs, they'll build with the players they have and try to add a max free agent next summer. If a great player is available through trade that could sabotage their lottery standings but not at all enhance their playoff chances, so be it. The road map here is fluid, zigging and zagging with the fortunes of the team and contorting with the ever-changing landscape of the league. What the Lakers are saying to me through this attempt to acquire Rondo is that they want to get great players, but to do so, they're not going to put a premium on losing at a historical rate.
To be honest, I'm not sure this is the best course of action. The Lakers are building with a sense of improvisation, which wouldn't be such a tenuous slope if a more proven front office staff and ownership group were at the helm. Right now, they're asking the fan base to trust them and the Lakers brand and that those two factors will bring the purple and gold back to where it belongs.
Yesterday, the Lakers yielded some answers to the questions we were asking, but maybe left us more confused than ever before. What next?
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino