Free agency was a disaster for the Lakers. They struck out on every free agent they chased, and got their prestigious “brand” stepped on and crushed by the national media. How did a player choose the Milwaukee Bucks over the Lakers? How is it that the greatest franchise in the NBA can’t even attract a free agent?
Simple: players want to be on good teams. The Lakers are not a good team.
The Lakers, as currently constructed, do have young talent. But they’re too young right now. D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, and Jordan Clarkson can be high-caliber NBA players. Each of them have all-star potential. But Randle played in the NBA for like 10 seconds, Russell is an unproven rookie, and while Clarkson had a strong rookie year, he’s still just getting his feet wet in the NBA. Established NBA players want to play with other established NBA players, not young players that are just getting started.
The way the NBA contracts are setup, top players generally don’t reach unrestricted free agency until their late 20’s. And in LaMarcus Aldridge’s case, he’ll be 30 when he plays his first game with the Spurs. So when these top free agents hit the open market, they’re near the end of their careers. If they want to contend for titles, they don’t have much time to wait.
It’s this reason why the Lakers have failed to sign a top free agent in the past two years. Forget stars, the Lakers don’t even have one player under the age of 35 that one would consider to be a good, proven NBA player.
And what’s frustrating is that they have tried to take a shortcut by going for only the top free agents instead of signing solid mid-level players. You know, players like Isaiah Thomas, Trevor Ariza, Tobias Harris, DeMarre Carroll, and Robin Lopez for example. I think the Isaiah Thomas mishap upsets me the most because it was well known that he wanted to be a Laker, and he ended up signing with Phoenix on what is now one of the best contracts in the NBA.
And then this year, they failed to re-sign Ed Davis, who ended up signing with Portland on an extremely reasonable contract. Davis wanted to return, but the Lakers were waiting for the top free agents to sign and Davis “didn’t want to wait” so he signed elsewhere.
Mid-level players like the ones I listed above aren’t exactly world-beaters, but every contending team needs players like them. Very rarely does a team without good role players win a title. And at the very least, if you have players like these, you can at least try to make a free agent superstar believe they can put the team over the top.
But since the Lakers don’t have these types of players, they have gone into free agency each of the past two years with a bare cupboard. No top free agent nearing the end of their prime wants to sign with a team devoid of proven talent. They want to win, and they want to win now. Not in 3-5 years when Russell, Clarkson, and Randle are nearing their primes. As that one lady says: “ain’t nobody got time for that”.
The Lakers are still in a good position since they will be able to use Russell, Randle, and Clarkson as recruiting chips in the future if they develop as hoped, but who knows how long it’ll be before they’re high-level players. It could be in 2016. It could be in 2018. But until the Lakers change their approach in free agency, they’re not going to succeed in signing a top free agent until their young talent matures. And who knows if they’ll even develop as we hope. I love Randle, Russell, and Clarkson, but let’s be honest, players don’t always pan out. Randle could turn out to be injury-prone, Clarkson could be a one-hit wonder, and Russell might just become just a good player, not a great player.
Doom and gloom aside, Los Angeles will always be a highly sought out destination for star players. But most stars want to win first and foremost, and right now, the Lakers are in no position to contend in the near future. Kobe’s contract definitely made a rebuild through free agency difficult, but at the same time, the front office needs to change their approach to building a team.
You have to establish a foundation before you can build something special.