How much is too much to give up for a championship? Is there a price that is too high to pay for something 12 NBA teams haven’t ever achieved in their entire history? Can that cost ever be measured in draft picks, or prospects given up? Do the ends always justify the means if you win?
These are the questions I’ve been pondering as I think about — and recover from — the Lakers’ injury-riddled 2021 season from hell. The hot takes have been flying in the aftermath of purple and gold’s Death Star-sized implosion in the first-round of the NBA playoffs, with some wondering if all the draft picks and prospects the Lakers sacrificed to clear the books for LeBron James and acquire Anthony Davis were too big of a bill to foot if they only win one title.
For one thing, let’s make this clear: The Lakers could still win another title with this duo. Nothing is guaranteed, but it’s possible. And even if they don’t, my counter-question to those doubts would be: Is there such a thing as too much to pay for a title?
Yes, the Lakers sent out D’Angelo Russell to clear Timofey Mozgov’s ill-advised deal off the books and acquire the pick that became Kyle Kuzma and trade down for Josh Hart, the latter of whom they later used in the AD trade. Yes, they let Julius Randle go, renouncing his rights in free agency to leave themselves more cap room. They also shipped out Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson (ironically to the Cleveland Cavaliers) to chase a title with LeBron while making salary room to sign him the next summer. And of course, they sacrificed Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Hart and a bevy of draft picks and pick swaps to acquire Anthony Davis.
It’s easy to look back and say it was a high price to pay as Ingram, Randle and Russell morphed into All-Stars, Ball finds his way in the NBA, Clarkson wins Sixth Man of the Year, and Hart and Nance looks like a solid role players who could contribute to winning (even if their current teams don’t do much of it). After all, couldn’t the Lakers have just waited the next season to sign Davis as a free agent without giving up anything? Hadn’t he made it clear that Los Angeles was where he wanted to be?
That’s easy to say in a vacuum, but the Lakers won a title in their first year with Davis. Opposing fans can cry “asterisk” and “ADisney” all they want, but no one can ever take that 17th banner away. And it’s fair to say the Lakers may have learned from their prior superstar chases and approached the Davis deal accordingly.
It’s hard to remember now that he’s a Clipper and seen as an oft-mocked postseason failure, but there was a time when the Lakers wanted to acquire Paul George. Staples Center cheered the man now known as “Pandemic P” when he visited after he initially demanded a trade to Los Angeles, but the Lakers opted not to go all-in then, instead waiting to try and sign George in free agency without giving up any of their prized “assets.” One ill-advised, multi-part ESPN documentary later, and George had re-signed with the team that actually traded for him, the Oklahoma City Thunder, before later demanding a second trade to join Kawhi Leonard in the locker room down the hall from the Lakers. He was finally in Staples Center, close but impossibly far away.
Did George snubbing the Lakers to remain with the Thunder influence Rob Pelinka and the front office wanting to go all-in for Davis? Who can say, but two years ago, the Lakers had already “wasted” one season of James, waiting for their kids to grow up. Instead of resting on their laurels, they pushed all their chips to the middle of the table to chase the only kind of chip that matters. A year later, they were dousing each other in champagne at Disney World.
Now, the Lakers never could have foreseen what was going to happen last season when they traded for Davis, and how altered the circumstances of that campaign would be, from the multi-month stoppage to the resumption in the NBA bubble. But imagine a scenario where the Lakers wait things out instead. They presumably waste another MVP-caliber season from James in his mid-thirties while waiting for Davis, and then still have to play an expedited season in 2021. Let’s say they signed Davis last summer anyway, and assume both he and the Lakers didn’t go as far in the bubble, and as a result are in a better position to stay healthy this season. That doesn’t stop Solomon Hill from diving for a loose ball and derailing another all-time season from LeBron. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Davis’ body would have withstood the wear-and-tear of a uniquely compressed season in which injuries have soared league-wide. Maybe they’re sitting right where they are, richer in assets but one banner poorer.
Or maybe they’re still alive, in the hunt for a championship but not guaranteed to get it. Who knows how acquiring Davis a season later would have affected the roster construction, the team’s mentality and more. But that’s exactly the point. Could the Lakers have managed their assets better? Maybe. But while winning trades is great, real winning is better. Even if this season didn’t go as planned, a title in hand is always worth a few young prospects in the bush.