In the NBA, there are three “policies” teams can implement to improve their teams: They can build a championship team via the NBA draft, through NBA free agency, or through a litany of trades with other NBA teams. Each has its drawback, and each has its fair share of teams built using that policy.
Since the late 1990s, the Lakers have mainly built their championship teams via free agency and the trade, with the former being the predominant method in the Lakers’ first four Finals appearances of the 2000s, while the latter was utilized in the most recent run of three straight Finals appearances.
A method that the Lakers have not used, however, is that of the draft, likely the most sustainable and long-term solution to building a championship team.
And there’s a reason this team doesn’t build through the draft: It involves sucking for a few years, and Laker fans will want heads to roll if a team doesn’t get to the NBA Finals, let alone win two playoff series. The word “rebuild” makes the entire city of Los Angeles shiver at its mere mention, because that’s not something LA has really done to win titles.
Of course, it’s an important question to ask, fans be damned. With the Lakers’ payroll being one of the highest in the NBA, moves are going to have to be executed carefully, and it helps to know what direction to move in.
For example, trading Pau Gasol seems like a foregone conclusion, but where we move him is dependent upon whether the team decides to build through the draft. Trading Gasol for picks and cash and young, unproven players with potential is a helluva lot different than trading Pau Gasol for Deron Williams in a sign-and-trade.
The costs of building through the draft, of course, is a waiting period in which, let’s be real, this Laker team will suck. It is also heavily dependent on talent evaluation, and the Lakers’ front-office being really, really good at it.
They normally are, mind you. Their main NBA draft picks that have had staying power — Kobe Bryant in 1996 (wow) and Andrew Bynum in 2005 — are easily top-5 players at their position. That said, the sample size is small, and other picks the Lakers have made in the first round haven’t done remarkably well (although they’ve been low-first-round picks, because we win games). Major investments in top picks in the draft make the process pretty make-or-break and can change the complexity of a franchise based on how well an unproven, 19-year old player (since I guarantee that will be the average age of the top pick in the NBA draft will be, starting with Anthony Davis in 2012 and continuing with basketball phenom Shabazz Muhammad in 2013) develops throughout the course of his career.
The benefits are numerous, though. If the Lakers’ talent evaluation goes well, then the payroll will be low-as-hell for a few years (due to rookie contracts being pretty humbling) and you have a better shot of keeping a rookie in the city long-term as long as you keep putting top-tier talent around them, all while perennially being a contender for a title and having a unit that’s cohesive and plays well together.
These are the obvious costs and benefits of building through the draft, and it’s one in which Lakers fans feel conflicted on. Sure, it’d be nice to be OKC, but do we really want to wait three years for a championship, when we can trade unproven potential for an immediate All-Star?
I don’t know what the answer is to that question, because it seems as if the model of trading/free agency has worked for the Lakers, but it works in bursts. While a team built through the draft can contend for nearly a decade, a team built via trade and free agency are contenders for half the time, but are more immediate threats. Using that model, the Lakers have won five titles in the first decade of the new millenium.
I have no idea how good Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak’s talent evaluation skillz are, and though he’s brought in a lot of young talent that’s done well, you have to consider that Phil Jackson always got the best out of the talent given to him, and put them in a complicated offensive system in which open shots were created out of thin-air.
The Lakers no longer have that luxury, meaning big-picture decisions are going to have to be made.