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The L.A. Lakers' Offseason: A Lesson in Asset Management

Rob Pelinka, VP of Basketball Operations and GM of the Los Angeles Lakers.

As we approach the NBA Finals, let's briefly turn our attention to one of the NBA's most storied franchises: the Los Angeles Lakers. Whether you're a die-hard Lakers fan or just a lover of the game, there's much to learn from the Lakers' approach to free agency and how its formula, once the blueprint to Championships, is now a dinosaur approach in a league that is becoming more evenly distributed, talent-wise, from the top-down.

In the ever-evolving landscape of professional basketball, finding value in unexpected places is becoming increasingly important. This was recently highlighted by Draymond Green's comments about how broadcasters reported on the undrafted rotational players on the Miami Heat. While Green's frustration was understandable, it underscored a crucial point: the importance of finding value in players who may not be the biggest names or the highest draft picks.

This is a lesson that the NBA's top teams have learned well. Consider the Denver Nuggets and their star player, Nikola Jokic. Jokic was a late second-round pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, the 41st overall pick, and the second-lowest pick on their current roster. Yet, he has since emerged as one of the league's premier players, winning the MVP award in 2021 and 2022, and leading his team to The Finals in 2023. His success is a testament to the Nuggets' ability to spot talent and potential where others might not.

Alex Caruso, 1st Team All-Defense

How have the Lakers done in this respect? Remember that kid Alex Caruso who left the Lakers after their 2020 Bubble Championship run? Caruso, who is now making $37 million over four years with the Chicago Bulls, was recently awarded 1st team all-defense this season. His departure should be a wake-up call for the Lakers, a lesson in the importance of recognizing and investing in talent.

But before we delve into the Lakers' situation, let's take a look at how other teams have successfully managed their assets. Miami, Boston, and Denver have all made strategic investments in their young stars, and it's paid off in spades.

Duncan Robinson, sharpshooter for the Miami Heat.

Take Miami, for example. They saw the potential in Duncan Robinson early on and locked him down with a five-year, $90 million contract extension. He wasn't their top star at the time, but they saw his potential and invested in him. Now, he's a key player for the Heat and a cornerstone of their future, adding significant value in this year's conference finals. Admittedly, it was a high risk at the time. Duncan was coming off one of the best shooting performances we'd witnessed while on a Miami Heat team that made a massive run to the Finals in The Bubble. Though they didn't receive much of the value at the time, best believe they're getting their money's worth today.

In Boston, Marcus Smart has been instrumental in maintaining the Celtics' defensive identity. His tenacity and hustle on the defensive end have been vital for the Celtics. He's known for his ability to guard multiple positions and make game-changing plays on defense. His contributions may not always appear in the box score, but his impact on the game is undeniable. The Celtics' decision to keep Smart, despite the cost, has helped them maintain their defensive prowess.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (KCP) and LBJ. KCP has a chance for another Championship Ring.

Over in Denver, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (KCP) has significantly contributed to the Nuggets' success. The Nuggets recognized his value and invested in him, a decision that has paid off handsomely. They signed him to a three-year, $37 million contract, showing faith in his abilities and what he's already proven at the championship stage. Knowing the type of clutch shooter and leader he's become, they knew he added a pedigree that they hadn't had at the time. His stats for the 2022-23 season show that he's been a consistent performer, averaging 10.8 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game. His shooting percentages are impressive, with a 46.2% field goal percentage and a 42.3% three-point shooting percentage. And KCP has more than lived up to expectations, proving to be a player the Lakers could have used this off-season.

These examples underline the importance of valuing every aspect of a team's roster. The Lakers, as they head into free agency, would do well to remember this. Investing in young talents like Rui Hachimura and Austin Reaves could pay off in the long run, much like it has for Miami, Denver, and Boston. The key is to recognize the potential in these players and to understand that a team's success is not just about the top 2-3 stars but about the entire roster

Rui Hachimura, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract, will command a significant salary in his next deal. Austin Reaves, on the other hand, is still on a two-way contract, but his performances have shown that he could be worth a substantial investment. Keeping Rui and Reaves will undoubtedly be expensive. But let's consider the upside.

Austin Reaves has been remarkable as a starter.

Investing in them provides the Lakers with a strong, balanced team. These guys have become vetted professionals after toppling the #2-seeded Memphis Grizzlies and the defending Champions, the Golden State Warriors, and they played considerable roles in doing so. It gives The Lakers the depth and versatility they need to compete at the highest level for as long as they have Anthony Davis and (possibly) LeBron James. And it ensures that they have a solid foundation for the future.

The Lakers have yet another chance to learn from their past mistakes as they head into the off-season. They have a chance to show that they value their assets, that they're committed to their future, and that they're ready to do what it takes to succeed. Or they can be the butt of all jokes in the offseason.

Acquiring a player of... spitballing... Kyrie Irving's caliber is a tantalizing prospect for any team. Irving is undeniably talented, a proven champion, and one of the most skilled offensive players in the NBA. However, acquiring a player like Irving comes with its own set of challenges and potential downsides.

Firstly, the cost of acquiring Irving would likely be substantial. For a team like the Lakers, this would mean parting ways with promising players like Rui Hachimura and Austin Reaves, or potentially even more established players. Next, there's the question of contract length and financial commitment. Someone like Irving's salary is substantial, which would have significant implications for a team's salary cap situation and flexibility. There's also the matter of team chemistry and public perception. What the Lakers would be showing in getting a player like this is how much they value (or don't value) their current roster. This makes teams more challenging to coach, considering you can't buy into a culture that only values the "highly valued" assets.

Finally, there's the question of how the fanbase would receive such a move. While some fans might be excited by the prospect of adding a player of Irving's caliber, others might be wary of the potential cost, both in terms of the assets given up to acquire him and the potential impact on team chemistry and identity. Fans right now absolutely love Austin as a 'Come from nothing' player playing in the bright lights of the city. Rui, the first Japan-born lottery pick, loves the championship atmosphere of Los Angeles and the level of detail that comes with it. The city has grown up in a short span with these stories, and going back to the trade-to-win format would be devastating for a fanbase who recently endured the downsides of this.

The lesson here is clear: building a successful team is not just about bringing together a collection of stars. It's about finding value, whether that's in undrafted players, late-round picks, or overlooked talents. It's about recognizing potential and giving players the opportunity to develop and shine. As the Lakers and other teams navigate the free agency period, they would do well to keep this in mind. After all, the next Jokic could be waiting in the wings, ready to make their mark on the NBA.


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