To say that free agency has not been kind to the Los Angeles Lakers would be a massive understatement. Not only have they missed on all of their main targets, but criticism has arisen regarding the sales pitch of the front office, with terms like "out of touch" orbiting the Buss family.
The Lakers plan is obvious: swing for the fences on stars, otherwise preserve cap space for the future.
While this strategy does have some merit, the reality is that times have changed. The Lakers used to be nearly assured that stars would want to come to the LA market, where they were greeted by sunshine, fame, and an open checkbook. However, under the new collective bargaining agreement not only are the Lakers restricted in how much they can spend, but they also charitably give even more money to their competition via profit sharing. Let's not forget that the Lakers franchise is so successful that they actually pay the league to compete against them. This allows small market teams to match them dollar-for-dollar, taking away most of the financial advantages the LA provided.
Fame is also something that is no longer exclusive to large markets, thanks in part to the Twitterfication of everything and the shrinking effect technology has had on our world. Sure, it's more fun to live in Los Angeles than Milwaukee, but being on a bad team in Los Angeles no longer trumps joining a playoff team, even if that team resides in an area that is colder than Rajon Rondo's jumper.
Of course, the CBA has done more than just shrink the Lakers ability to pay players. It has also made it nearly impossible for superstar-level players to leave the teams that drafted them. Due to restricted free agency and the financial advantage given to incumbent teams most players that the Lakers would pursue with their "superstar-or-bust" strategy don't hit free agency until their late twenties or early thirties.
For a rebuilding team that presents a few major problems. For one thing, the mindset of NBA players is different now than it used to be. Players grew up playing AAU ball together, seeing each other in tournaments, and sharing a common bond through the athleticism and skill that separates them from 99.9 percent of the population. They don't want to go to a team and be "the guy" anymore. They want to go be "one of the guys," they want to play on a team that's not only going to win but will allow them to enjoy themselves while doing it.
There is a well-known adage that "it takes money to make money," well in the modern NBA it takes talent to attract talent. It's like a junior high dance, where at first all of the kids stand along the edges, look at their feet, and pray to God that they remembered to wear deodorant. If the song is right a group might venture out onto the floor together, and from there it snowballs and suddenly everyone is having a good time. It takes a group to get it started though.
No one wants to be the kid that steps out onto the dance floor by himself and leads the way, because failure is scary and can lead to terrible things. The kid trying to start a dance-off by himself might get called a weird-o, just as a star-level player who finds himself as the only talent on a bad team will get labeled a loser -- a guy who just wasn't quite good enough. In today's 24-hour media cycle perception quickly becomes reality, and no player wants to be seen in that way.
On top of that fear, factor in the ticking time bomb that is an athletes' body. Father Time is no joke, and players know they have a very limited window to win in their prime. Players who don't become free agents until they are thirty don't have the luxury of signing on with a team and giving them a few years to improve. They have to win now.
With that being the case, the flaws in the Lakers "superstar-or- bust" strategy are evident. It's understandable why the Lakers would see benefits of such a strategy, and it's possible that next offseason they will have even more cap space and will convince two stars to make the leap together (thus eliminating the lone dancer on the floor scenario), but that's far from a safe bet.
In spite of the potential for a quick fix, the risks inherent with such a plan have simply become too great, which the past two summer have illustrated perfectly and painfully. Case in point: the Lakers have spent most of free agency this year waiting for a decision from an almost-30-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge.
Yes, the weather is nice and yes, like a lot of NBA players he owns a home in Newport Beach. That doesn't negate the fact that the Lakers can't offer him anyone to step out onto that dance floor with, nor does it change the fact that his window is closing a little more every day. For a guy like Aldridge, being the first superstar to sign on and then praying the basketball gods send help in next summer's free agency is just too big of a risk. If he was 24, sure, enjoy Los Angeles, build the team, become a city-wide hero, and all that good stuff. However, at 30, by the time the team is contending his prime will likely be over.
In other words, the Lakers biggest mistake in free agency hasn't necessarily been their pitch, it has been who they are pitching to. They aren't understanding what their customers -- free agent stars -- want to buy. The Lakers can't change what they are selling. The pitch is what it is: they a rebuilding team with big market advantages and a few nice young prospects that isn't ready to make the leap yet. That isn't going to resonate with in-their-prime stars, so what has to be adjusted is the customer that's being targeted.
For now, the time for chasing whales has passed.
The Lakers have long been wary of pursuing restricted free agents, but wouldn't being in a city like Los Angeles and playing alongside a young, up-and-coming team have a much better chance of persuading a 22 year-old Tobias Harris? Time isn't as much of a factor for a young player like Harris, and players like Randle, Russell, and Clarkson are his age. These are guys he can grow with, and when the time comes, win with. Yes, restricted free agency has pitfalls, but the odds of the player wanting to sign are much higher with a Harris-esque player -- one who has untapped potential but isn't a star -- rather than an already established player like Aldridge.
Similarly, Greg Monroe is 25 and spent years locked away in Detroit, ultimately taking the qualifying offer just to break free from Motor City. Like Harris, he offers the combination of youth and potential that Mitch Kupchak should covet, even if his immediate fit on the team is questionable. To their credit, the Lakers did pitch Monroe, but he clearly was an afterthought to the team's big meeting with Aldridge.
Not surprisingly Monroe chose to spurn the Lakers for the Bucks, who had made him their top priority. Milwaukee does have the advantage of being in the laughably weak Eastern Conference, so they could offer near-guaranteed playoff runs, but that's not insurmountable if the Lakers had proven that the future in LA is bright and that Monroe could help lead the team back. Milwaukee may be playoff-bound, but they aren't contending, after all.
Ed Davis, on the other hand, really wanted to be a Laker but Mitch Kupchak opted to let him sign a fantastic deal with the rival Blazers. Kupchak needed cap space to remain open just in case Aldridge chooses LA, no matter how unlikely that may be, and the price to be paid for it was Davis. Ed may not be a star, but on the deal that he received he absolutely would be a positive asset, one that could have been used as part of a package to trade for a star down the line when the opportunity presents itself.
Young talent may be difficult to find, but it becomes impossible if the team ignores opportunities in order to chase unicorns, aka stars who want to spend their prime rebuilding.
The bottom line is that the "superstar-or-bust" mentality comes with the cost of missing out on more-attainable players. This is the same price that was paid last year with the Carmelo Anthony debacle, and that led to the worst season in Lakers history. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, yet here we are again. Even worse, next summer the Lakers won't have the soothing balm that a draft pick can provide for a losing season.
That said, of course all is not completely lost. The Lakers still have a solid young core of D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and Tarik Black. The pressure on them to turn into quality players has increased tremendously, but the hope is that the Lakers have found at least a few pieces that will be attractive moving forward.
They also have cap space, which can be used to sign some of the remaining free agents or absorb a contract or two from another team while picking up assets. While free agency has been a failure thus far, the summer isn't over. Still, there is no easy fix, no magic wand. The Lakers have tried to skip steps and add a superstar to a team that just isn't ready for one yet, and it's time to shift focus.
While no one wants a treadmill team -- one that's good enough to make the playoffs but not good enough to truly have a shot at winning -- it is becoming apparent that in the modern NBA most teams have to be good before they can be great.
"Superstar-or-bust" may have worked under the old CBA, but times have changed and adaptation to the new reality is needed. The Lakers must start by finding the right customers for what they are selling, and pounce on opportunities that present themselves rather than wait for a whale to take their bait.
Getting a star player isn't about the beach, the weather, or the LA lifestyle. It's about fostering a team that is ready for one.
Follow Trevor Lane on Twitter @16ringsNBA