Once upon a time, the Los Angeles Lakers were staring down the barrel of Kobe Bryant’s decline. After the 2011-12 season, Bryant was headed into his 17th year in the NBA with the Lakers trending decidedly downwards. They had just been ousted by the up-and-coming Oklahoma City Thunder, and with Bryant and Pau Gasol aging, the Lakers had to choose a path quickly. So they could either try to jump back into contention while they still had superstars, or they could slowly fade into mediocrity.
They decided to go for it. They traded several draft picks, one of which was just the No. 10 overall choice a few weeks ago, for a 37-year-old Steve Nash. They flipped Andrew Bynum for a superior center who was two years his senior in Dwight Howard, but carried back issues that made his lone Lakers season a disaster. Back injuries flared up for Nash as well. Head coach Mike Brown was fired after four games. Bryant ruptured his Achilles during a desperate playoff push. And the Lakers spent the next five years out of the playoffs. They picked No. 2 overall three years in a row. They botched pitches with star free agents. They were the laughingstock of the NBA.
The failure of the previous regime’s attempt to go all in seems to have informed the cautious nature of the current front office. Besides LeBron James, the Lakers haven’t signed a single player to a multi-year deal this offseason. They haven’t added a single three-point shooter, the most valuable asset a team with James can have. But perhaps most importantly, they haven’t put young star Brandon Ingram on the table in a trade package for Kawhi Leonard.
In the context of the last Lakers collapse, those decisions make sense. Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson are trying to be prudent. NBA teams shouldn’t give away their best young players. They shouldn’t hamstring their cap sheets with long-term deals. They saw the devastated husk that Nash and Howard left behind, and they chose not to take such risk. The current Lakers value flexibility above all else.
The problem with that theory is that it suggests there was a problem with what the 2012 Lakers decided to do. For all of the grief Mitch Kupchak gets now about the end of his Lakers tenure, his decisions to go all in for Nash and Howard were completely correct. At that point, Nash was coming off of an All-Star season. His three-point shooting and passing fit perfectly alongside Bryant. A decline should have been expected, but not such a drastic one as what actually occurred, Howard was a 26-year-old three-time Defensive Player of the Year and MVP candidate. The Lakers knew he had back issues, but were justified in thinking he would overcome them.
But most importantly, they acknowledged the lifecycle of most championship franchises. In short, there is nothing special about being a champion. Eventually, Bryant was going to decline. The Lakers were going to fade out of championship contention. And once they did so, there was no guarantee they would ever find another player like him and make it back there.
It took the Boston Celtics two decades to recover from the end of the Larry Bird era. The Chicago Bulls still haven’t reached the Finals since losing Michael Jordan. When you have a star who is still capable of winning championships, it is your responsibility as a franchise to put him in a position to win championships. You don’t know how many more chances that player is going to have. And by extension, you don’t know how many more chances your own team is going to have.
Sure enough, the 2012-13 season was Bryant’s last as an elite player. He fell off of a cliff after that largely due to his ruptured Achilles, but at his age, that sort of drop was always going to come. Having another No. 10 overall pick in the bank wouldn’t have softened it. The Lakers made the right decision and were met with the wrong outcome. It happens.
But now it is affecting their decision-making process. They are refusing to go all in for James as they once did for Bryant. And they are doing so under a very false assumption. The Lakers think that with James, they are set to be contenders for the life of his four-year contract.
But James is already in uncharted territory. Nobody has ever held the title of best player in basketball as a 16-year veteran. James will become the first on opening night. With that in mind, though, it shouldn’t be assumed that he’ll keep that title for very much longer. We’re talking about LeBron here, so he easily could be the best player in the NBA for two or three more seasons. He could also be an ordinary All-Star next year. He could look like a shell of himself at the end of his contract. We have no way of knowing.
The Lakers are acting as if they have a certainty. They are sacrificing what might be the last year of LeBron’s prime in order to preserve the flexibility to enhance the years beyond it. A star free agent may very well join the Lakers in 2019. It won’t make a difference against the Warriors in 2020 if James isn’t the best player on the floor. With each passing year, the odds of him continuing to claim that title shrink.
The Lakers have the best player in the NBA right now. They should treat that as their window, because as Bryant proved, it can close at any time. If the cost of putting James in position to win a championship now is Ingram’s future, it is one that the Lakers should pay. You only get so many chances with a player like that. And if the Lakers getting James at all has proven anything, it’s that you’ll never regret taking those chances when you had them.