With the NBA trade deadline approaching, now is the time of the year when rumors start circulating. Not only are there rumors about who will be traded to whom, but there are also rumors about the moves teams will make in anticipation of the free agent market in the coming summer. The upcoming free agent class is headlined by the most anticipated free agent not named LeBron James since 2010. Kevin Durant will be wined, dined, courted, flattered, solicited, pursued, and enticed by any team he allows. All indications seem to (at this time) point to him resigning with Oklahoma City or joining the already vaunted Warriors roster (a frightening prospect for the rest of the NBA). Yet a few days ago, Stephen A. Smith suggested that their was mutual interest between Durant and the Los Angeles Lakers in a deal. This report has since been countered by a number of sources, including people close to Kevin Durant. Being spurned by Durant in the off-season would be painful enough for the Lakers, but getting passed over by seemingly every big-name free agent since 2012 underscores the much larger problem that L.A. is facing. Playing for the Lakers is no longer the zenith of a player’s career. L.A. is no longer a desired destination for free agents. This is not to say it cannot be again, but until the Lakers come to the realization the players and us as fans all have, they will continued to be spurned. The Lakers are trying to sell the past as the reason to sign that dotted line to the players who are the present and future of their franchise.
In 2012, it appeared the Los Angeles Lakers had, once again, ensured they would be one of the top basketball teams in the NBA. They had inked two stars by trading for Dwight Howard and acquiring an albeit old free agent in Steve Nash via a sign and trade deal. They, of course, still had Kobe Bryant. They had Pau Gasol, one of the greatest foreign born players in NBA history. Not only that, but they still had many holdovers from a team that had won two consecutive NBA championships in 2009 and 2010. People were wondering just how dominant this team would be during the season. After all, in the starting five players alone they had a combined 3 MVP awards, 9 NBA championships, and multiple Olympic medals, All-NBA team honors, and All-Star Game selections. Many people were saying the Lakers could win as many as 70 games and then cruise to the championship. Some incredibly optimistic people could even be heard whispering the word “undefeated.” Shockingly, however, this seemingly dream scenario quickly turned into a horrendous nightmare. The Lakers proceeded to win an underwhelming 45 games. Not only that, but they went through an astounding three head coaches throughout the season and were swept in the first round of the playoffs.
After this debacle Howard was run out of Los Angeles (and rightly so), Nash (sort of) retired (but not officially until this past year), Gasol moved on to the Chicago Bulls, and Bryant suddenly began to show his age. In the two full seasons since, the Lakers have combined to win an underwhelming 48 games. They also have had two lottery picks in the draft; this coming from a team that had two lottery picks in the 20 drafts prior. D’Angelo Russell, picked second in last year’s draft, was the highest pick the Lakers had due to their record since they selected some guy named Magic first overall in 1979 (they did select James Worthy number one overall in 1982, but that pick was from a trade with Cleveland in 1979. Cleveland finished the season with the worst record. In fact, the Lakers had that number one overall pick as defending champions). Beyond their inability to win, the Lakers have also been unable to lure free agents to L.A. A list of the many free agents since the frenzy of 2010 the Lakers have missed out on include: Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, Amar’e Stoudemire, Nene, Marc Gasol, David West, Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan, Greg Oden, Deron Williams, Roy Hibbert (the good version), Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Martin, J.R. Smith, Monta Ellis, O.J. Mayo, Lebron again, Bosh again, Carmelo Anthony, Greg Monroe, Chandler Parsons, Luol Deng, Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, DeAndre Jordan again, Jimmy Butler, Brook Lopez, Draymond Green, and Goran Dragic. They have instead signed players like: Theo Ratliff, Devin Ebanks, Darius Morris, Andrew Goudelock, Gerald Green, Ronnie Aguilar, Shawne Williams, Ryan Kelly, Ronnie Price, Anthony Brown, Marcelo Huertas, Metta World Peace (a decrepit version of the player formerly known as Ron Artest), and traded for Roy Hibbert (the bad version). Why is L.A. no longer the destination spot it used to be? The answer lies in three separate, but interconnected reasons.
L.A. Isn’t The Only Place to Become a Star Now:
For a long time, if a player wanted to become nationally recognized he needed to sign in a large market. Thus, teams like the Knicks, Celtics, and Lakers were able to sign any player they wanted who had such a desire. Beyond these markets, a very small percentage of the country saw any one else play. It is rarely realized, but the NBA has not always been as popular as it is today. Up through 1981, many NBA Finals games were televised on tape delay. Conference championships were not nationally televised until 1987. First round games were not all nationally televised until 1995. So if a player wanted to be on TV, he needed to sign in one of those large markets. Nowadays, the NBA shows all playoff games nationally. In fact, the NBA has its own television channel. Small market teams can now offer a player the same exposure as a large market team. One of the Lakers’ largest advantages of their location has been rendered obsolete.
No Draw of Greats:
The Lakers, due to their location, impressive management, and occasional moments of good fortune, have been able to dress players like Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem, Magic, James Worthy, Shaq, and Kobe. But they have also been able to assemble a fantastic supporting cast for all of them. These players wanted to play with these greats. The lure of a championship drew them there. Unfortunately for the Lakers, Magic is not walking through the locker room door. There is no Phil Jackson on the sideline. Kobe Bryant is gone after this season and was on his last ligaments the past few seasons. The Lakers cannot offer players the opportunities to play with all-time greats or play for a championship now, nor in the foreseeable future meaning players want to stay away.
Finally, the Lakers have sabotaged themselves by refusing to prepare for the post-Kobe era in L.A. Instead of signing Bryant to a team-friendly deal for his last contract, the Lakers management offered him a salary cap devouring monstrosity. By refusing to focus on long-term rebuilding, the Lakers have set themselves back, perhaps even behind the 76ers. The 76ers at least have a semblance of a plan to rebuild. They are stocking draft picks and loading up on young talent. The Lakers do not have the draft picks. They are not allowing there young players to get valuable minutes. Certainly, by leaving Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell in to close out games the Lakers might experience growing pains, but it is better than the alternative of watching the team slog through the regular season without gaining anything. For some time now, the Lakers have been appealing to their decorated history as the reason a player should sign with them. For example, people were telling Dwight Howard to go to the Lakers because he could be the next Shaq. The players today do not want to be the next somebody. They want to leave their own mark on the present and future.
The Lakers can turn the trajectory of the franchise around, but they first need to realize they can no longer sign any free agent they want by selling their past. Contenders sign players, not the name of the team. Winners sign players, not organizations that were once winners. Until this is realized, the Lakers will forever be facing the past instead of looking to the future and moving forward to a time when gold and purple can, once again, reign.
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