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How Not to Team Build: An Object Lesson from the Lakers

The Lakers have some major questions to ask themselves if they want to learn from this season’s mistakes.

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LA Clippers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Editor’s Note: The CDP wrote for Silver Screen and Roll regularly during the rebuild years. So as something as an expert in bad basketball, we brought him back to analyze how the Lakers ended up headed for another lost season.

Before getting into a gory dissection of the 2021-22 Lakers, it’s important to acknowledge that the purple and gold have also been unlucky this year. Injuries have been a major storyline, with LeBron missing 17 games, and AD missing 22 (and counting). Kendrick Nunn, a good value signing turned contractual deadweight, has yet to play. Talen Horton-Tucker has been hurt on and off, and never gotten into a rhythm. And so on. To be clear, I don’t believe that this team would be challenging for pole position in the Western Conference with better health, but these are not trivial injuries to fringe players.

Still, the Lakers find themselves at a brutal crossroads. They won a title 16 months ago, have three superstars on paper, and are getting a top-five-player-in-the-NBA-level season from LeBron at age 37, but risk missing the playoffs. They will likely stumble into the play-in game, but may have to win 2 games on the road just to make the first round of the real postseason. LeBron, he who giveth and taketh away, has been agitating for major changes (again), alterations that may not be possible in a placid buyout market. Like the Talking Heads across radio, television and podcasts, the Lakers are now asking themselves, “Well, how did I get here?”

Simply put, this Lakers squad is not contending because of short-sighted roster moves and a lack of a consistent team-building philosophy. Let’s dig into exactly how this went wrong, and what the Lakers need to ask themselves to learn from these mistakes.

Question #1: What Kind of Team Are We Building?

Los Angeles Lakers v Charlotte Hornets
Do the Lakers want to keep trying to build super teams? Or build with a bit more depth?
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

If you look at the premier NBA franchises, they have a philosophy and a system that connects the players, coaching staff, and front office to create a cohesive on-court product. For example, the Warriors play high-IQ basketball that emphasizes shooting, ball movement, and team defense.

When this strategy goes right, these teams create complementary decisions that reinforce each other to put their team in a position to be successful through their internal synergy. Like a snowball, it starts to roll downhill, gaining momentum towards the end goal. This is really hard to maintain! Even the “light years” Warriors are not above panic, as they wasted a year of Steph’s prime and threw poor fits like Kelly Oubre — who is a nice player but not a high-IQ ball-mover — into the mix before making some smart adjustments this offseason.

The Lakers, on the other hand, lack a consistent vision and have put a dramatically different roster around LeBron each season. Complete roster turnover is a huge risk-reward prospect, and it makes me think that the 2020 bubble team was more of an alchemic strike of good luck than a repeatable process, at least for this front office structure.

Beyond that, continuity and familiarity matter in the game of basketball. I’m risk averse, but I would have run back a tweaked version of last year’s team that started 22-6 before being derailed by injuries. What did Pelinka and company do instead? They blew it up in the highest risk-reward scenario imaginable: Emptying the cupboards for Russell Westbrook.

Question #2: What Kind of Spender Do We Want to Be?

Los Angeles Lakers v Chicago Bulls
It’s too later for the Lakers to keep Alex Caruso, but this brain trust needs to learn the right lessons from his (and others’) departures.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The most important constraint for a front office is how much money they have to spend. It’s not my money, and we should all recognize that the Lakers no longer have the deepest pockets in the NBA among billionaire owners. This is a legitimate issue, BUT the Lakers unquestionably should not have traded for Russell Westbrook if they were unwilling to go further into the luxury tax. That move screams, “We have an aging LeBron James and want to win now! We’re all in!” Except, as we saw with their choice between Talen Horton-Tucker and Alex Caruso and other self-imposed limitations, they weren’t.

The Lakers are now seeing how being spendthrift while having three max players limits your roster flexibility dramatically. They have a grand total of two other players, THT and Nunn, that make above the minimum, and nothing else to offer outside of a 2027 first-rounder in a trade. The blueprint was there – hold onto Schröder and Caruso instead of letting them walk for nothing. They could have provided vital depth or been trade ballast in a weak deadline where the Lakers could have topped offers for players that would have helped this year.

If they wanted to avoid a deeper tax bill, the Lakers had two other good choices. One, trade for Buddy Hield and preserve flexibility. This trade required zero picks and sent away an ineffective Montrezl Harrell and ill-fitting Kyle Kuzma. Two, sign-and-trade for DeMar DeRozan! The Lakers likely avoided this move because of the hard cap such a sign-and-trade would have imposed, but if you were going to not spend anyway, you might as well get the guy who’s having an MVP-caliber season surrounded by other stars.

Question #3: How Do We Accumulate Valuable Assets?

Chicago Bulls v Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers could have both these guys (and more players like them) if they empowered their scouting department a bit more.
Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Going back to the question of team building philosophy, it is clear that the Lakers are smarting from self-inflicted wounds when it comes to asset acquisition. Giving up a first-round pick to get Westbrook was an unforced error. It was above market and took away a meaningful chance at a trade chip or potential rotation player. LeBron James may not care about them picks, but he should! The vaunted Laker scouting department has picked up Caruso, THT, current standout Austin Reaves, Kuzma, Jordan Clarkson, Ivica Zubac, and Larry Nance Jr. outside of the lottery since 2015.

Moreover, this roster doesn’t fit Frank Vogel, a defensive-minded coach who has maximized his team on that end of the floor every season. Yes, adding some shooting was imperative, but the Lakers have zero credible wing defenders, and Westbrook has a well-earned reputation as a cross between a statue and a reckless gambler on that end of the floor. The roster is mostly washed up, offense-first veterans at this point. How is that setting Vogel up for success?

Now, let’s give the team credit for signing Reaves, Monk, and Melo, but none of their other offseason moves have worked out. While we have covered the Kendrick Nunn contract, picking THT over Caruso was also a poor choice for a franchise in win-now mode, even if THT has a higher ceiling long-term. Especially since it was a choice that, again, they did not have to make. In the end, it all created a team that lacks the depth to properly support its stars.

Question #4: How Do We Adjust?

2020 NBA Finals - Practice and Media Availability
What will Rob Pelinka, Kurt Rambis and the rest of the Lakers front office learn from this season?
Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

OK, so the offseason didn’t pan out, the depth chart is a mess, and injuries are mounting. How did the Lakers respond? Mostly by doubling down on their prior mistakes. There have been a few bright spots like the Reaves’ game-winner and the signing of Stanley Johnson, but their strategy of mostly hoping for internal improvement has mostly made a bad problem worse.

Vogel, who was masterful with rotations in his championship season, has really struggled. He has favored washed-up veterans like Bradley, allotted unpredictable playing time for his players, and trotted out terrible lineups that hemorrhage points so badly you wonder if he lost his log-in information for Cleaning the Glass. Perhaps most damning, it’s unclear that he did much to coach Westbrook until the season was already tanking. Part of the blame here is LeBron’s as well – he has admirably restrained himself from a “fit in, fit out” tweet, but failed to effectively set expectations or help Russ adjust to his new role.

The front office, after catering to LeBron’s whims for 3.5 seasons, grew a spine at a curious time at the trade deadline. I won’t rehash the dollars and cents, but it is clear that the Lakers could have moved Westbrook and gotten better this season through some combination of future picks and taking on more money in the short term. Instead, their message was that the players need to figure it out themselves, which predictably did not sit well with LeBron, and led to a week of more unnecessary (but self-created drama) for a team that is desperately searching for stability.

Moving Forward

So, where do we go from here? The reductive answer is one step at a time. The dialogue on Twitter is about whether or not “player <X>” will fix the Lakers season. Unfortunately, the Lakers are not one move away and need to make a series of winning, incremental moves to turn things around.

There are some encouraging signs of an appetite for change — starting with the benching of Westbrook and signing of Stanley Johnson. The organization must continue making hard choices, even if that means cutting veterans in favor of gambles on G-Leaguers and young talent. Maybe adding Wenyen Gabriel on a two-way deal — but seemingly committing to actually play him — is a step in the right direction here.

Still, Vogel has to get Westbrook to play differently and sustain that effort. If he can’t, the Lakers need to recognize that they need a different voice in the locker room. Looking ahead to the offseason, the Lakers will have major choices to make when they have access to more first-round capital again. But to do so, they’ll have to go beyond just a Westbrook trade, and either leverage future assets to truly go all-in around LeBron/AD, or consider putting their superstars on the block to rebuild.

No NBA team with LeBron and AD is hopeless, but the Lakers need to start connecting on singles and doubles, and fast, if they want this team to return to contention before it’s too late.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Craig on Twitter at @thecdp24.