There have been many ways in which NBA General Managers have sought to build competitive teams. For large market franchises, the “Big Three” model became en vogue and now has quickly receded under the crashing waves of the new collective bargaining agreement and its progressive and punitive luxury tax penalties.
Small market teams have focused on the draft and the acquisition of high value, low cost 2nd round picks and free agents. More than ever, the shift of power in the NBA has increasingly moved from the superstar player and star coach to the front office.
Enter the Lakers.
The Lakers front office has been struggling with the awkwardness of its conflicting, twin objectives since winning back to back NBA championships in 2009- 2010. Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak began jettisoning supporting parts of that championship roster with an eye on the future in 2014. Simultaneously they tried to remain competitive with patchwork moves designed to placate Kobe Bryant and a restive fan base used to success.
The results have been mixed.
The Dwight Howard saga was a pr debacle for Jim Buss on the surface, but evidence increasingly shows that Buss was fully aware that Howard was perhaps only a one year rental. The net result of the trade is the Lakers’ ended up escaping unscathed from Andrew Bynum’s poison pill contract situation. The high expectations attached to the arrival of Howard and Steve Nash obscured the fact that the Lakers’ roster last season was filled with marginal NBA talent once you got passed its famed foursome.
Dwight Howard leaving the Lakers is the best public relations news the front office has recieved in years.
It took the pressure off. Buss and Kupchak are free to rebuild one season earlier than expected and with a complete investment in Mike D’Antoni and his philosophy. This years’ roster was cobbled together from D’Antoni’s recommendations and players that fit his system.
The Lakers won their exhibition debut against the Golden State Warriors last night with a collection of journeyman, retreads, and washouts and it looked pleasing to the eye. The roster is younger, more athletic, and thankfully possesses a multitude of players that can make a shot. Considering the absence of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Nash the performance was a revelation.
In the rotation was Xavier Henry, Jordan Farmar, Jordan Hill, Nick Young, Chris Kaman, Wesley Johnson, and Shawne Williams. That’s 3 recent lottery picks that washed out with their initial teams, 2 mid first round picks that have also bounced around the league, a former all star searching for a home after being on his fourth team in four years, and a returning son coming back to a team he should never have left.
In most situations such as this, a team of pending free agents would struggle with unity as they all sought their own individual agendas. There is, however, a growing sense that this Lakers’ unit will be different. That the sum of its parts will be greater than its individual makeup would suggest.
All involved has something to prove. Kobe Bryant must prove that he is recovered from injury and that decline is not inevitable. Steve Nash needs to prove that he is still a great orchestrator and not just playing out the string of the end of his career. Pau Gasol needs to show, in a contract year, that he is still a great player and that his struggles the past two seasons were a product of being misused and not a decline.
For Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson, Nick Young, Shawne Williams, and Jordan Hill they are fighting for their NBA reputations. They have each struggled with living up to their draft position and have been mostly with losing situations. A successful season with the Lakers would put their respective careers back on track whether they stayed with the team going forward after this season.
D’Antoni has been given the tools to be successful this year. Maybe not a team with championship aspirations but a roster that is conducive to playing in accordance with his system. Through all the criticism he’s received over his last two stints, this is the first time since Phoenix that he has had a favorable roster.
Jim Buss has been pilloried for his lack of basketball acumen. He has kept quiet about the constant torrent of skepticism that has surrounded his tenure. In this season, with these obscure low cost pickups, he has the chance to show that he knows how to construct a team. A surprising, unexpected playoff run from the Lakers this season would go a long way to re-establishing the team’s brand.
Its difficult to get too excited from a preaseason game, but the team exhibited energy, passion, an ability to score, and an espirit de corps that has been glaringly absent the last 3 seasons. With the return of a healthy Bryant, and a motivated Nash and Gasol, this season might prove to be a joyful experience. The Lakers as a lovable underdog is a once in a generation possibility.