The art of building a superteam
What the Lakers have learned and hopefully still remember from their last failed attempt at building a superteam
It was just 5 short summers and 5 long seasons ago the Lakers built their last superteam, trading for lost center Dwight Howard and over-the-hill point guard Steve Nash to form a Big 3 with aging superstar Kobe Bryant.
An ill-fated response to the NBA voiding the Lakers’ trade for Chris Paul six months earlier, the Lakers’ trades for Howard and Nash and firing of Mike Brown and hiring of Mike D’Antoni as head coach were the actions of a rudderless front office paralyzed by the impending death of their patriarch and foolishly willing to gamble the next five years of the franchise’s future that Howard would be the right fit and Nash would be able to stay healthy.
We all know what happened. Dwight proved to be Dwight, Nash broke down immediately, and Kobe suffered a career-diminishing torn Achilles right after valiantly, single-handedly carrying the Lakers to the playoffs. Jim and Mitch’s attempt to build a superteam failed miserably and doomed the Lakers to a dismal 4-year death struggle that ultimately required Jeanie Buss to fire her brother Jim and GM Kupchak and bring in Magic Johnson.
Fast forward five long years and the Lakers have finally recovered from Jim and Mitch’s failed attempt to build a superteam but find themselves back in the same spot, perfectly positioned to create a new superteam next summer by pursuing and signing LeBron James, the polarizing 32-year old superstar small forward acknowledged as the best player in the NBA, and another elite free agent like Paul George, Russell Westbrook, or DeMarcus Cousins.
So what did the Lakers learn from their last attempt to build a superteam and what do those lessons tell them to be careful about this time around?
First, the Lakers need to have a clear vision of the kind of team they want to build and style of basketball they want to play, a blueprint to guide them on the moves to make and superstars to pursue. This is where everything started to go wrong for Jim and Mitch, as they had no clear vision and ended up with a roster and coach that didn’t fit. Fortunately, Luke Walton and Lonzo Ball have the current Lakers committed to recreating Showtime.
Second, the Lakers need to identify the free agent superstars who would be the best fit with each other, Lonzo and their current roster, and the team’s vision. Frankly, if the Lakers are serious about bringing Showtime back to LA, their ideal superstar targets next summer should be LeBron James and Russell Westbrook, the league’s top two triple double threats whose speed, scoring, and playmaking would be perfect fits alongside Lonzo Ball.
Imagine how impossible it would be for teams to defend a Showtime team led by Lonzo Ball, LeBron James, and Russell Westbrook. This is a Lakers superteam that could beat the Warriors and win a championship. While Paul George would be a good option if Westbrook was not available, neither he nor DeMarcus Cousins are as good a fit as James and Westbrook for the superteam the Lakers want to build and style they want to play.
Third, the Lakers need to sell their targeted superstars on their vision of bringing back Showtime and championships to LA, and convince them to buy in and agree to the individual sacrifices necessary for the superteam to work. For LeBron and Russell, it means dialing back their ball dominance, personal stats, and usage percentages and emulating how Kevin Durant fit in seamlessly after joining the Warriors and leading them to the NBA title.
Getting superstars to buy into what the coaches wanted to do was where Jim and Mitch made their fatal mistake as neither Howard or Nash were good fits to play with each other or with veteran alpha superstar Kobe Bryant. Neither were willing or able to change or adjust their games for the benefit of the team. Fortunately, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka should be able to do a better job selling LeBron and Russell on joining the Lakers.
Pursuing and signing both LeBron James and Russell Westbrooks as free agents presents serious challenges for the Lakers. To start with, Russell Westbrook needs to officially decline the supermax extension the Thunder have offered him to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. Then the Lakers need to figure out how to free up $72 million in cap space to sign both to $36 million supermax deals and how long a deal to give LeBron.
LeBron would be 33-years old next summer and entering his 16th NBA season. While he’s not as old or injury prone as Nash, LeBron is already past his prime. As tempting as it might be to lock up the best player in the league for multiple years, history tells us there’s a high chance we’ll regret that 4-year supermax contract. Better to sign LeBron to a 1-year deal unless he is willing to give the Lakers a discount for a multiple year contract.
According to Eric Pincus, the word around the NBA is LeBron is interested in playing with Russell Westbrook, which could be part of why the latter has not signed his looming extension with the Thunder. You have to believe Westbrook might love the idea of leaving the Thunder like Durant to join the Lakers along with LeBron James and form the superteam that would end Durant’s and the Warriors’ domination of the Western Conference.
And what about Paul George? Could he be the third amigo that inspires LeBron and Russell to take less so the Lakers could sign him too? OKC is hoping Westbrook and George love playing together on the Thunder and will both decide to stay. Unfortunately, the more logical outcome is that the two decide to leave OKC and join LeBron and Lonzo on the Lakers. There’s no way OKC can complete with the bright lights and opportunities of LA.
What about the problem of two point guards with Ball and Westbrook? Positionless basketball is rapidly becoming more than just a cliché. Mike D’Antoni is facing an even more daunting conflict with his point guard duo of James Harden and Chris Paul. Both players have to adjust their games but the team benefits by having an All-Star point guard on the floor all 48 minutes and two elite playmakers playing together to close out games.
We’re a long ways away from next summer and things could be further complicated by Westbrook, George, or Cousins being put on the trade market this winter if their current teams believe they’re going to leave. The stakes have never been bigger or opportunities greater as the Lakers head into a make-or-break season. They need to start winning games and use the lessons they learned from their last failed attempt to build a superteam.
The result could be the greatest superteam in Lakers and NBA history.