Before they were ruined in a historical defeat, the Miami Heat lost the offseason game. They did not gamble, they played it safe. They concerned themselves with the money they had to pay in taxes and not the price they would have to pay when they did not repeat. This is the quiet game. The skill of front office personnel who earn their salary by maneuvering in the deep end of the pool. They make their mark upon the league as they manage risk and reward and veterans and rookies. This is how teams get better-they take chances- they don’t get worse by sticking with the status quo.
Was it arrogance? Perhaps. Seduced by the champagne poured over their heads in another Heat championship in which they rose from the dead and marched to victory, the Heat trusted the team they had. Dr. Buss used to say it was better to trade a player too soon then too late. But Pat Riley put all of his faith in Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. They did not address their need for a point guard, big man and shot creators. Instead they addressed their desire not to spend money. They signed Michael Beasley because they could get him cheap. They signed Greg Oden because they could get him cheap. They let Mike Miller go because of money. They acquired Toney Douglass in a trade for Joel Anthony. Toney Douglass played 3 minutes in the playoffs. These were the acquisitions that would haunt the Heat second unit in the NBA Finals as they were helpless to do anything but sit on the bench and watch. And then cry.
The Heat could have signed Chris Kaman as a back up center. But they did not. They could have signed Nick Young as a back up to Wade who missed 29 regular season games. They did not. The Heat could have acquired Kendall Marshall as a back up point guard to manage the second team, a talent of Kendall’s. They did not. They could have used their mid-level exception. They did not. What they did do to cover the wound of three players making $60 million dollars was hope Lebron James brilliance would solve all things. But a year later the results were self explanatory: demolished by the San Antonio Spurs second unit they could not compete on a championship finals level and Lebron was tired. Had the Heat not been a part of mediocrity and the Eastern Conference they would not have made it to the NBA Finals at all.
It is self-explanatory really. You win in the offseason by adding depth that will carry your team throughout the year. This upcoming offseason was supposed to be loaded. But then it faded off into a ‘maybe not’ status. Now with a Heat embarrassment in the Finals the free agent market has gone back to ‘game on, look who is available’. Franchise players may be on the market. Role players are available that shore up second units. So it comes down to this: do the front office of the Lakers have the ability to pitch, recruit and close deals.
If last year was any clue the answer is no. The pathetic billboards the Lakers put up around the city to “woo” Dwight Howard was an embarrassing signal they were clueless when it came to understanding the desires of the modern athletes who don’t live in the past where the Lakers blindly make all of their decisions. This is a social media generation where a player like Robinson Cano can shun the Yankees and go across the country to Seattle. And Dwight Howard can shun the Lakers and go to Houston. This generation of players are less interested in iconic organizations who have won in the past. They want to win right now and they don’t care where it is. Social isolation is no longer a reality. Today’s players feel the sting of failure every time they read their Twitter timeline. Winning and skilled rosters are as valuable as the millions of dollars they make for a few hours of work.
The Lakers get a second chance at it. And the stakes are higher because the players are more plentiful. Lebron James and Chris Bosh might opt out of their contracts and have until June 30th to decide if they trust Pat Riley to add complimentary pieces. Bosh has been on record. This year was miserable. Take this to the bank: Millionaire athletes are not concerned about billionaire owners first world problems like tax bills. Carmelo Anthony, by all indications, is no longer in a New York state of mind. Kevin Love is doing his best job of forcing his way out of Minnesota. Rudy Gay, already on his third team in the Sacramento Kings, can opt out of his job in Northern California.
Unrestricted free agents who are not superstars such as Lance Stephenson, Luol Deng, Pau Gasol, Rodney Stuckey, Shaun Livingston, Kyle Lowry are good “gets”. The Restricted Free Agents are significant as well. Greg Monroe. Eric Bledsoe. Gordon Hayward. Chandler Parsons. Evan Turner. Isaiah Thomas. Mo Williams.
The question is one of competency: can the Lakers achieve in a climate in which they have limited advantages. Their golden last name has lost some of its shine, it is somewhat dim after such a humiliating year and bad choices by the front office in Mike Brown and Mike D’antoni. The Lakers struck out last year for the first time ever, rebuked by Dwight Howard, slapped in the face by his rejection. This year there are a lot of different angles to play, a lot of Dwight Howard roads leading to salvation. But someone has to prove the Lakers can be a force in this era of player collusion and player negotiating power.
The Lakers will always be the Lakers, their brand is associated world wide with excellence. And yet so much of what they have to sell is past glory. It has been four years since the Lakers won a NBA title. It has been four years since they have won a second round playoff series. Look at what current players say. Carmelo named Houston and Chicago as his top choices. Kevin Love has named Golden State and Chicago as his top choices. Lebron James would love to play with Chris Paul. He loves L.A. but the Lakers hold no appeal. So in a way the Lakers are going in as the underdog. Many current players find them incompetent and the negative press of Jim Buss feeds the narrative that they don’t know what they are doing. It’s been two months and they still don’t have a coach.
Empty and bare, that is the Lakers 2014-15 roster as of mid June, as vast as the Grand Canyon. Filling spaces and at the same time concerning themselves with the future of 2016 and Kevin Durant and the future of 2015 and Kevin Love and the future of 2014 and Lebron James is a weight that may crush even the smallest expectations. There is the now: Kobe Bryant, Jim Buss and a franchise on the precipice of something. But what?