The Los Angeles Rams weren’t built overnight. There wasn’t one, two, or even three aggressive moves that led to the Super Bowl they won this past February. There were many pieces to the puzzle that needed to fall into place, with the lion’s share of those coming from the franchise trading away many first round picks.
This reckless abandon with first round picks is very unconventional in the NFL. It’s a strategy that has left the franchise without a first round pick since 2016, and without an opening-round selection available to them until 2024.
But you won’t find Rams general manager Les Snead lamenting over these lost picks. It’s all been part of a calculated strategy, one that he was finally able to acknowledge with cockiness and specific wording born out of a meme that first gained popularity amongst Rams fans like me, later spreading to all fans of the NFL due to the team’s success in recent years.
“So in honor of the shirt, F them picks — we’ll use them to go win more Super Bowls.”
Yes, he wore that famous “F*** them picks” meme with his own face on his shirt during the Rams’ Super Bowl parade.
Enter LeBron James and the rest of the Lakers.
LeBron’s praise of the GM makes sense. He’s won four NBA Finals with three different franchises, with each of those three franchises trading away first round picks to build around The King to the best of their abilities. For the Cavaliers and the Heat before the Lakers, it’s resulted in rebuilds that have had varying degrees of severity. But given the Larry O’Brien trophies now in their buildings... I’m sure they’d do it the same way all over again in a heartbeat.
The current Lakers era has a lot of similarities to this current Rams one. The Lakers themselves haven’t had a first round pick since 2018, which is the exact year that LeBron James brought his talents to the City of Angels. The Rams have used those first-rounders to acquire talented players (like Jalen Ramsey and Matthew Stafford) to surround their otherworldly talent who has an arguable case at GOAT status with tread still left on the tires to continue building his resume (Aaron Donald). Sound familiar?
With that being said, there’s been a sophistication and efficiency taken with the Rams’ moves that just hasn’t existed with the Lakers’. This is something that LeBron may not understand and, frankly, may not care about.
However, Rob Pelinka and the Lakers should care. Pelinka’s job, and the severity of a potential rebuild in the future hangs in the balance. This topic is becoming relevant again with the possibility of the franchise trading one or two first round picks again this summer to acquire the talents of LeBron’s newly desired teammate: Kyrie Irving.
The Lakers could learn a thing or two from the Rams and what has afforded them the ability to win a championship with more than enough firepower remaining to compete for another one this year (and probably a couple of seasons after this year) with the same exact core.
For one, there are large differences in the NFL draft compared to the NBA draft. The sheer pool of players in the seven-round NFL draft gives the Rams’ a greater ability to use their top-notch scouting department (another similarity to the Lakers) to find valuable pieces. To try and create a fair comparison between the NFL and NBA draft equity actually utilized by each Angeleno team in question, I will only evaluate the second halves of each draft: rounds four through seven in the NFL and round two in the NBA.
The Rams have nailed more than their fair share of diamonds in the rough in the NFL Draft’s later rounds. Among the standouts from that group are these three contributors:
- Tyler Higbee, drafted in the fourth round of the 2016 draft, has been the Rams’ starting tight-end since he was selected. After proving his mettle, he signed a four-year, $29 million extension in 2019.
- Sebastian Joseph-Day, drafted in the sixth round of the 2018 draft, was an efficient starter alongside Donald on the defensive line before he signed a three-year, $24 million deal with the Chargers after winning the 2022 Super Bowl.
- Jordan Fuller, drafted in the sixth round of the 2020 draft, starts at safety for the Rams and calls out plays for Ramsey, Donald, and the rest of the Rams defense. He became so vital so early for the organization that he was voted as one of the team’s eight captains in only his second season.
And perhaps most importantly, the Rams found wide receiver Cooper Kupp — recent winner of the Offensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP — in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft. He was the sixth WR drafted that year.
The Rams used their first round picks on the right players in the right spots around their existing superstars. Already have the GOAT in Aaron Donald pressuring the quarterback? Cool, trade a first round pick for Jalen Ramsey to pick off those resulting bad throws. Defense all good to go now? Cool, trade the terrible Jared Goff (the Rams’ last first round pick selected) and two first round picks for Matthew Stafford to finally realize the full potential of head coach Sean McVay’s offense.
So what lesson can the Lakers learn from the Rams in the coming years?
Having a “F*** them picks” strategy can work for the Lakers just as much as it’s worked for the Rams. It already has worked. However, if it is to continue, they must use those first rounders on more talented, better-fitting talent while still supplementing the margins of their roster with young talent from the draft. Whether that’s through bought second-rounders or finding undrafted gems.
Sure, the Lakers’ 2019 first-rounder was correctly traded for one Anthony Davis, a perfect fit around LeBron James just as Ramsey and Stafford were for the Rams. But then the Lakers traded a first round pick for Dennis Schroder, who couldn’t figure out how to work well with Davis and ultimately left after one season with the team. Then the Lakers traded a first round pick for the miscalculation of all basketball miscalculations, bringing Russell Westbrook to L.A.
In that deal, they also traded Kyle Kuzma who was the last remaining real asset that the team had drafted themselves after Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram were dealt for Davis. Ball and Ingram were drafted with the Lakers’ last lottery selections, while Kuzma — along with Josh Hart and Talen Horton-Tucker — came well after the draft’s first 14 picks.
THT and new selection Max Christie are the only players on the roster that were drafted by the team since LeBron joined, as the Lakers did not draft any players in the 2020 or 2021 drafts.
Having some activity in those drafts could have helped the team, as those hypothetical draftees/signees could have been on a developmental track that would have allowed them to provide solid contributions in a 2022-23 season that someone like the 19-year-old Christie seemingly won’t be able to as he works on basic improvements to his game in his first season.
This is where the Lakers’ approach differs from the Rams’ true secret to succeeding without early draft capital: Trusting their scouting department to fill out the middle and bottom of their roster by finding late draft talent that is just as good as some mid-to-late first-rounders. Another bonus is that these hidden gems are less expensive and easier to control... something I know Jeanie Buss would love.
And it’s not like the Lakers’ scouting department has a bad track record. It’s actually quite good, evidenced by the names above as well as their recent eye for the undrafted Austin Reaves who is seemingly destined to be a quality NBA role player for some time.
At this point, the only path to returning to championship contention seems to be through the ethos that LeBron and Les Snead both share: “F*** them picks.”
If they actually care about trying to compete for a championship in the last few years that LeBron wears the purple-and-gold (if he signs to extend his contract past this upcoming season), they’ll deal a first-round pick in the next couple of months because even if they don’t trade for Irving, it seems as if the Lakers might send a first-rounder out the door due to the emergence of a “Plan B”. Both scenarios would dramatically improve the roster, especially in the shooting department that the current group is lacking in.
The similarities between the Lakers and Rams’ approaches to those first-round picks probably won’t, and should not change as long as LeBron and Davis are around, but the fact that they’ve generally ignored the later parts of the draft must change if they are to avoid another period of doom-and-gloom like the one they weathered from 2013-2017.
The selection of Max Christie, as well as the emphasis on getting younger in free agency, might be a sign of the Lakers recognizing the much-needed change to be more like the Rams, but is this shift coming too late to sustain success into the mid-to-late 2020s?
We’ll just have to wait and see.