One of the best parts of being a Lakers fan during the hellish 2021-22 season was listening to James Worthy offer insights into what happened on any given game night on Spectrum SportsNet’s postgame shows. When the team won, he was celebratory and happy right along with fans, giving praise and just-dues to those who performed well. When the team lost, he was direct and candid, providing critiques that often got right to the heart of the matter without any semblance of concern for calling out individual players or, even, the head coach.
Worthy didn’t pull punches, and I appreciated him for it. And I suspect I’m not alone in that feeling.
I provide this context because Worthy made some news this week when — during an appearance on the “Stoney and Jansen” show — he offered some thoughts on the current state of the Lakers, and the organization’s lack of desire to truly rebuild in a way that could endure for longer than just a season or two. CBS Sports has a nice summary of his comments, with Worthy’s key point below:
The Lakers, I think they have refused to build over the years. We’ve had some good players: [Brandon] Ingram, [Julius] Randle, [Lonzo] Ball. We have tried to win quickly. In Kobe [Bryant]’s last few years, we brought in [Steve] Nash who was a little bit older, Dwight Howard came in with a back injury. We traded away draft picks to try to win immediately and I think they’re going to have really think about how they need to build.
You look at Memphis, you look at the way Boston is playing right now, you look at the way Milwaukee has built a team over time. We need to create players that have cohesiveness. We had it a couple years ago and we traded it all away to try to win, to try to match what Brooklyn was doing and what other teams were doing with their Big Three players. I think that’s going to go away. That’s an illusion, having the Big Three. You see what happened in Brooklyn, you see what happened with the Lakers. Even though everyone experienced injuries, you still should be playing better and you should definitely be in the playoffs. So the Lakers — it’s embarrassing and it’s unacceptable.
There’s a lot to unpack here.
First, Worthy’s not necessarily wrong. The Lakers have not built their team like the Grizzlies, Celtics, or Bucks. Those teams feature home-grown stars who have developed into the types of franchise-altering performers that drive deep playoff runs. Further, the Lakers have traded away their promising young players in an attempt to get better faster — first for Anthony Davis, and then later for Russell Westbrook. And, to Worthy’s point, this has impacted cohesiveness and generally hastened the type of roster turnover that can be difficult to navigate.
Second, Worthy’s point about the team not making the playoffs being embarrassing is, well, also well made. The Lakers were billed as a title favorite in the wake of this past season’s roster being built. Not even making the play-in game, to say nothing of the playoffs, even in the face of the injuries the team suffered, is just a bad look. It’s reflective, not only of how far and quickly the team fell, but their general inability to form the types of winning habits that could sustain them even in the face of their injury struggles.
Of course, just because what Worthy said about this season’s Lakers — and their progression from champion to charlatan in just two seasons — rings true, does not mean the Lakers have to reflexively swing wildly in the other direction in order to accomplish what they failed so spectacularly at this season.
Too often, when you fail at something, overcompensating in your course correction is looked at as not just the natural idea, but the right one. That, however, isn’t always true and offers its own pitfalls. As with most things in life, it’s important to look at any situation — whether a success or failure — and identify the individual variables that impacted the outcome. A thorough analysis of those decisions can then help determine the proper path forward, rather than just leaning on the idea that “we should just do the opposite of what we did before” as being the best solution.
This is especially true when it comes to team building and roster construction in the NBA. If there’s one characteristic of championship teams, it’s that they have at least one MVP level player in his prime. After that, there’s not necessarily a huge correlation in what their makeup is, nor, more specifically, how those teams were put together.
Go back over the last 25 years or so and review the list of NBA title winners. You’ll find plenty of teams that drafted and/or developed their main stars (Bulls, Spurs, Warriors), but you’ll also find just as many where trades and/or free agency were main drivers for acquiring their top talent (Lakers, Heat, Raptors). And, in most cases, you’re going to find that it’s often a mix of multiple strategies that led to how a team was able get enough talent to put them over the top.
Which brings me back to the Lakers. Yes, they traded their young players and future draft picks for AD. But that deal helped win them a title and positioned them to contend in the seasons since. Going a step further by then trading the remaining batch of their young players and a draft pick for Westbrook is what looks to have pushed them a step back. So, does that make the strategy of making win-now moves wrong? Or does it mean that they just need to be more discerning in what types of win-now moves they actually make?
Again, Worthy isn’t necessarily wrong about how the Lakers got to the place they’re at. But he’s also not fully correct in framing it negatively in comparison to an approach based on fully rebuilding by keeping your young players, either. Fact is, the only thing that’s known to really work is to get your hands on a superstar first and go from there. And, big picture, you do that any way you can.
Over their history, the Lakers have drafted stars (West, Baylor, Magic, Worthy, Kobe — hi Hornets!), traded for them (Kareem, AD, Pau), and had them come as free agents (Shaq, LeBron, Wilt). While these different approaches can have their benefits over the others, the point is to get them in the first place and figure the rest out from there.