(Author's Note: This piece ran on Friday, July 22 with an error - thank you to those that noticed it right away and allowed me to make the required changes. Sorry for the mistake)
With the emphasis on the Lakers and their free agency "failures" reaching a fever pitch over the past couple of seasons, I became very interested in how the contenders have been built over the past ten years. How were those teams constructed? Are there any common themes that can be found? What is the trend? Here’s my attempt to answer that question.
Methodology: I defined "contenders" as teams in the Finals for the past ten years (a total of 20 teams) and based on the Win Share contribution of the top ten players and used the % of the total to assess whether a team has been built primarily through "trades, free agency or drafted".
-Obviously contenders aren’t limited to just the teams that made the Finals, but for the sake of simplicity, I restricted it to such.
-Win Shares aren’t the definitive stat of a player’s worth to a team
-Some designations aren’t quite clean. Would LeBron have re-joined the Cavaliers if he wasn’t drafted by them in the first place?
-I chose to keep a strict designation for Draft Day trades to be considered "Trades" vs "Drafted". To me, a deal for Kobe Bryant doesn't happen without an asset deemed worthy to trade in Vlade Divac, and that's why it's important to me to count it as trade.
Teams Built Through The Draft
This Spurs team was built through free agency more than I expected, but the core of this team was built through the draft - most notably the Big 3 of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker.
2012 OKC Thunder
Sam Presti really did an amazing job drafting this squad. Out of the original "Thunder Buddies," only Russell Westbrook remains (who I think will be traded before the season starts). How quickly things change.
2013 San Antonio Spurs
Another draft-heavy team, this time with a key contribution from Tiago Splitter. Kawhi Leonard’s emergence will change this equation for future Spurs teams.
2014 San Antonio Spurs
Other than Kawhi Leonard (and even he was acquired in a draft night trade), this Spurs team was built entirely through drafting and free agency - free agents played a bigger role in this team than the Spurs were accustomed to. Marco Belinelli was huge!
2015 Golden State Warriors
Steph, Klay, Draymond, and Harrison Barnes were all drafted - the Warriors own Big 4.
Similar season as the 2015 Warriors team, with even crazier years for Steph Curry and Draymond Green making the weight of their Win Shares even higher.
The teams that are in this category (Spurs, Thunder, Warriors) are generally more sustainable as teams that are strong and contenders to win the title. This path is obviously the most "slow & steady" and requires nailing almost all the picks made, but can also be the most rewarding in the long run.
Teams Built Through The Draft AND Trading
The starring role on this team is obviously the Cavs drafting LeBron James #1 in 2003. While the rest of the roster was hot garbage (seriously, how the hell did LeBron get them to the Finals?), the composition of the team is fairly balanced between trades and draft. LeBron’s first Cavs tenure is certainly marked by a continuous attempt to trade for talent to win a "Ring for the King".
While the Pau Gasol trade truly pushed this team over the top, the deal happened at the deadline which reduced his Win Share contribution to the team. The next two Finals Lakers teams do not appear in this section.
Note: While Derek Fisher was originally drafted, he was on this team as a result of signing as a free agent.
The Pau Gasol deal was an outlier in that a team acquired such a huge piece without really taking a dent in the number of true assets - placing this Lakers team in the rare Draft+Trade combination, alongside a miraculous LeBron James effort to push the 2007 Cavaliers to the Finals.
Teams Built Through Drafting AND Free Agency
2009 Orlando Magic
The major 1-2 punch of this team was drafting Dwight Howard and absolutely nailing the Rashard Lewis signing, a max contract that was widely mocked as soon as it was signed. An injury to Tony Battie in the pre-season forced Stan Van Gundy to play Lewis at the 4, unknowingly kick-starting the "stretch four" concept.
No question this team revolved around a drafted franchise player, but was surrounded impeccably via free agency (Rashard and Hedo) to maximize Dwight Howard’s potential. This Magic regime prioritized fit over other things in a way that Stan Van Gundy has continued on in Detroit now.
Teams Built Through Free Agency
2011 Miami Heat
2012 Miami Heat
2013 Miami Heat
2014 Miami Heat
Out of the last 10 years and 20 teams, the only roster to be primarily built through Free Agency was the 2010-2014 Heatles Era Miami Heat. While their team was an undoubted success, going to four- straight Finals, this model is clearly one that required an anomalous set of circumstances, close friendships, and
extreme collusion coincidental timing of free agency to put together. Not exactly a repeatable model (Editor’s Note: Until Team Banana Boat signs with the Lakers for the minimum next summer).
Teams Built Through The Trade
This team was built through the blockbuster moves to acquire Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen when Danny Ainge decided to push all his pieces in and make a run for the title. It clearly worked, and without a Garnett injury in 2009, they could’ve easily made three straight NBA Finals (losing to the Lakers in the second two, obviously). Importantly, none of these trades were possible without years of being bad and acquiring assets via the draft and smart trades (such as buying the 1st round pick from Phoenix that became Rajon Rondo).
With a full season of Pau Gasol, the 2009 Lakers’ Win Shares reflect a true balance of the trade-heavy composition that they truly were.
Very similar team to the 2009 Lakers, with the most notable change being Metta World Peace replacing Trevor Ariza.
Largely the same team with Rajon Rondo playing a huge role - leading this team in Win Shares! Other than Paul Pierce and Tony Allen, none of these players were drafted by the organization, pretty remarkable.
The third straight team in this category that brought the Lakers some degree of pain. Note that Dirk Nowitzki was a draft night trade acquisition - not originally drafted by the team. Mark Cuban and his management team continued to try to surround Dirk with the right pieces at the right time via trades and free agency and finally struck lightning with this 2011 team. While the Heat may have been "better", the Mavericks were the better team in the Finals, had better chemistry, and were well-coached enough to win it all.
These teams involved a lot of veterans that were at the "let’s just get a ring" stage of their careers, and the pieces were remarkably well-fitting. Specifically, the Paul Pierce-Ray Allen-Kevin Garnett trio made a lot of sense from a role and floor geometry perspective in terms of where they operated best. Trading is a viable option - but also very high risk, just ask the 2014 Brooklyn Nets.
Teams Built Through Free Agency AND Trades
2016 Cleveland Cavaliers
This one is a strange one because of the case of LeBron James. Does LeBron James ever join the Cavs in Free Agency without having been drafted there in the first place? Chances are the answer is no, and I was tempted to give credit half of LeBron’s Win Shares to draft and half to free agency but ultimately decided to keep a strict interpretation of the transaction. Kudos to the Cavs organization for making the right trades (JR Smith and Iman Shumpert for example) to complete the roster. Lastly, with Kyrie being injured for the early part of the year, it reduced his Win Share number, but in reality this team (like the next section) shows a remarkably well-balanced team.
The Balanced Team
2015 Cleveland Cavaliers
Something beautiful about this - with the LeBron asterisk from the above - at how evenly this roster was put together transactionally. Ultimately this may be the model forward as competency across the NBA (less "dumb" front offices) will lead to more balanced teams transactionally with less lopsided trades and more of a balanced approach to team-building. Note that although the 2016 Cavaliers team does not show here, with a full season of Kyrie Irving they would also be in the "Balanced" category.
Despite the seemingly increased prominence of Free Agency in team building, the surest way to build a contender that is sustainable and have a roster with depth is still through the draft. While this may seem obvious, the discussion surrounding teams like the Lakers has not adjusted to this reality. The 2017 Warriors are the odds-on favorite to win the next NBA Championship and are poised to dominate the next few years in the NBA due to the high profile free agency signing of Kevin Durant, but none of that happens without a core that was thoughtfully drafted and developed.
For the Lakers (and other rebuilding teams) looking for quick ways to contention, they should figure out what they value most: building something sustainable, or something that will momentarily quiet the outside noise about their perceived incompetence? Whether by plan or by simply backing into it, I would argue that the data supports them continue to build upon the core the Lakers have drafted rather than to rush into a trade for Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins or a similar star that would require this current team to lose too many of their current assets. When the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol in 2008, they had an established superstar in his prime with a solid core of drafted talent - and didn’t need to compromise their team to make the deal happen.
In terms of free agency, other than the historically anomalous composition of the Heatles team, no other team has been built entirely on that method and for sensible reasons. After spending a "required" 9-10 years with a single team before a player enters their true free agency, they will prioritize a good basketball fit more times than not over a large market environment like the Lakers or Knicks.
The more I think of the Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng signings, I think the Lakers have come to the same realization. While I disagree with the contracts (especially the Mozgov one), the Lakers are starting to finally look like a team that has a plan and is executing it in a meaningful way - surround their drafted core with veterans and good coaching. If history is any indication, they’re going the sustainable, consistent route, and for that - I’m happy.
All stats per Basketball Reference. You can follow this author on Twitter at @damanr.