Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? When building out an NBA roster and that thing is “talented players,” you’re likely to find reasonable arguments on both sides.
On one hand, the NBA is a talent league, and the goal should be to get as much of it as possible. The most common refrain arguing for this approach will go something like: Just give me the most talent and I’ll figure it out. Examples of this would be the various Olympic basketball teams the U.S. has put together since 1992. Or, in recent NBA history, the 2017 and 2018 Warriors that added Kevin Durant to the already title-winning roster that included Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.
On the other hand, there is something economists call “the law of diminishing returns” — which says that at a certain point, the benefits gained from something go down as you invest more time or resources into it. When applying this to team building and roster construction, this can play out in a variety of ways, but it mostly comes back to asking people to do less than they typically would (or, in some cases, to not have anything to do at all), and still be okay with it.
Some people might be cool with that — get paid the same amount to do less or nothing? sign me up! — but most professional athletes aren’t wired that way. They want to play, and they want to contribute in tangible ways on the floor.
Now, let’s rewind a bit...
It wasn’t even a calendar year ago that Rob Pelinka was on the top of the world as the architect of the team that won the NBA championship. Then, a strong offseason that brought in more raw talent and roster change than many expected had much of the basketball world looking at the Lakers as favorites to repeat.
Over the months that followed, however, Pelinka was slowly taken down, peg by peg, as he watched his team be undone by injury and health and safety protocols absences. It all culminated in his Lakers being unceremoniously dispatched from the playoffs in the first round, losing three consecutive games after — you guessed it — another injury left Anthony Davis sidelined and the team simply falling apart after not getting enough reps together during the regular season.
Which brings us back to the present day...
With this as the backdrop to the title defense that wasn’t, you have to imagine what Pelinka was thinking this offseason when it was time to build out the roster. Not again. I’m not going to make the same mistakes I made with the last team. Pelinka wasn’t going to allow his team to crumble under the weight of injuries or other absences if he could avoid it. No, he was going to find a way to build out a roster that could better deal with a scenario like the one that ransacked them last year.
So Pelinka used the tools at his disposal to try to build out the best team he could in order to combat the thing that just plagued them. He consolidated several role players and traded them for a third star. Russell Westbrook isn’t the perfect player by any means, but he’s the type of floor raising, role-player improving, offensive initiator who can serve as a lead shot creator if one of LeBron or Anthony Davis is hurt or unavailable.
Then, with the rest of his resources, he convinced the most talented players he could to take the money he had available to offer them, with the hope that the allure of living in Los Angeles, playing for the Lakers, and going after a championship next to LeBron, AD, and Russ would close the deal. So, Talen Horton-Tucker returned on a solid contract, Kendrick Nunn signed for the taxpayer midlevel exception, and a slew of rotation ready role players all signed on for the veteran’s minimum. The result is a roster that currently stands 13 players deep, all of whom could argue they’re good enough to play multiple shifts a night.
I mean, look at this group:
Guards: Westbrook, THT, Nunn, Kent Bazemore, Malik Monk, Wayne Ellington, Rajon Rondo
Forwards: LeBron, AD, Carmelo Anthony, Trevor Ariza
Centers: Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard
Not a single player on that list averaged fewer than 17 minutes a game last season. Only Ellington didn’t at least get to the play-in game with his team. In other words, all of these guys aren’t just used to playing real minutes with a defined role, they’re used to doing it on a team that had real playoff aspirations and played meaningful games down the stretch of last season. Now, on the Lakers, at least one (and probably 2 or more of them) aren’t likely to be regular rotation players at all.
If anyone is equipped to handle this type of situation it’s Frank Vogel, with his straightforward communication style that is based on honesty and transparency. He’s very good at setting the right tone with his players, establishing roles, and following through in order to meet the expectations he’s set.
That said, even Vogel saw the limitations of that approach last season. They said all the right things and put on a good face about it, but give Wes Matthews, Montrezl Harrell, and Gasol some truth serum and then ask them how happy they were with their respective roles by the end last year. I’d bet their responses wouldn’t be all puppies and rainbows, even going beyond the team’s early playoff exit.
The challenges with carving out a rotation and keeping players engaged will be just as meaningful this season — even with several of the players talking about sacrifice and buying into their role. In the Venn diagram of finding the right rotation that leads to productive groupings that win games and keeping all the players engaged by getting them enough minutes night to night and over the course of the full season, Vogel will have to live in the center more often than not. That’s a big ask and, honestly, it’s not fair to expect him to achieve it all this season.
And, in the big picture that’s just one more challenge Vogel will have to navigate. In a season where the expectation is to win a championship with a group of mostly new players who have never shared the floor together, Vogel will also need to sort through a deep roster of worthy contributors and determine which ones end up being on the outside looking in.
This is particularly true in the backcourt where, as you can see above, there’s seven players all capable of playing a real role this year. From a skill set standpoint, there’s also enough variety for each one to have a credible argument that they are a viable solution for this team.
Need a movement shooter who can space the floor and draw help through his perimeter gravity? Hello Wayne Ellington. Need a more defense-focused, spot-up shooter who can also thrive in transition? Bazemore is your guy. Need a shot-creating combo guard to run P&R’s and get you some buckets? Nunn, you’re up. Or, if you want that guy to get downhill into the paint, maybe THT. Want a pure setup guy who will organize the team’s sets and thrive in the improvised aspects of the game? Rondo is your man.
I can go on and on, here. Like I said, the Lakers have solutions. The thing is, though, NBA games aren’t divided into neat little problems like this every night. Further, the most productive NBA rotations aren’t based on solving a new equation based on that game’s opponent.
Most players thrive on consistency and understanding what their role will be night to night, and then a rotation is established to facilitate that. In the case of the Lakers, it’s easy to see how challenging that could become. Not just from the standpoint of making the initial determination of who the right players to promote into those steady roles might be, but in the potential fallout from those decisions and how to maintain buy-in from those on the outside of the rotation looking in. This team is full of so many similarly talented players, determining that hierarchy could have even bigger implications than a situation where there are other factors (experience, salary, accolades, status in the league) that need to be managed.
Again, I don’t doubt Vogel having the right approach and temperament to manage this. Nor do I doubt the players coming into this situation with the right mindset and approach. I truly do believe everyone is looking at this through clear eyes and that they’re going to give it a fair shot to work out. That said, as we saw last season, even the best intentions don’t guarantee success. And in the world of professional sports, the idea that things work out simply because you try hard or because you want them to is naive, at best. These are people, after all. And, despite best efforts, people get disappointed, they get upset, and they can become disgruntled.
Will that happen with these Lakers? I won’t pretend to know, or even predict it’s likely. But, as we saw with this past season, even the best-laid plans and an abundance of talent don’t guarantee winning. And when team’s lose more than they think they should, the natural reaction of those on the inside is how they can turn things around. And for those who aren’t playing as much or don’t have an on-court role at all, but believe they could help if they could, that’s where things can get off track quickly. This is the point where it’s worth remembering almost every time a player talks about sacrifice within their role, the caveat is “if we win...”
Which brings me back to that opening question — can you have too much of a good thing? I’d love to know how Vogel answers that question today.. .and then to see if his answer changes by June of 2022. My guess is that if this season ends like the one in October 2020, the answer will be obvious. Just as it’s obvious how much work and political navigation it will take to actually make that happen.