Three Strategies Lakers Must Change to Stay Competitive in Modern NBA!
If the Los Angeles Lakers hope to compete for championships in a league where the challenge and financial investment to win titles have dramatically increased, they must be willing to pay the price to be a legitimate contender.
After winning their 17th championship in the bubble eighteen months ago, the Lakers struggled to remain competitive as injuries and Covid battered the roster and poor decisions and salary cap and tax strategies derailed their progress. Suddenly, the NBA’s most storied franchise is facing a series of franchise defining decisions with major short and long-term implications right as their usual championship team building strategies no longer appear to be working.
What’s happened is the competitive landscape for the NBA has changed and the price of admission to be a legitimate contender in the league today now requires top teams to accept gargantuan payrolls and be willing to pay mega luxury taxes. The last two years, the Lakers’ personnel decisions were driven by their tested old school strategies of trading for a third superstar, optimizing cap flexibility by only adding players on short term deals, and avoiding mega luxury taxes.
Unfortunately, those strategies led the Lakers to trade for Russell Westbrook, build a roster of minimum salary players with no trade value, and lose valuable assets like Alex Caruso and Dennis Schroder to free agency without any return. Unable to find a deal at the trade deadline, the Lakers doubled down on the same outdated approach, positioning themselves to use Russ’ $47 million expiring contract and two first round picks to trade for Damian Lillard.
The Lakers must accept the rules have changed. Tradeable players on long-term deals are better than cap space, mega luxury taxes are the new price of admission to compete, and two superstars and depth are better than three.
1. Tradeable Players on Long-Term Deals Are Better Than Cap Space
The Los Angeles Lakers approach to team building has always favored cap space and players on 1-year deals over players on multiple-year contracts. The Lakers need to rethink this strategy as it limits both team talent and continuity.
When 13 of the 15 players on their roster are making either maximum or minimum salaries, the Lakers’ ability to take advantage of trade opportunities to improve their roster are severely limited as we’ve seen over the past two years. Cap space is great if you’re trying to sign LeBron James as your centerpiece but filling out the roster with nothing but minimum salary players on 1-year deals limits the talent you can sign and your trading chips to get better.
The trade the Clippers made to land Powell and Covington, two players who would have been excellent fits on the Lakers, was a perfect example of a trade opportunity for which the Lakers simply did not have the trade assets to pull off. That’s why not failing to re-sign Caruso and Schroder as trading chips was a serious mistake. Standing pat at the trade deadline also did nothing to help the Lakers be in a better position with respect to trading chips this summer.
The key to putting the best possible team on the court and still retaining the flexibility to free up cap space or come up with the assets needed to take advantage of great trade opportunities is signing players to tradeable contracts. Signing key players you can easily move if necessary is a smarter strategy than turning over an entire roster of 1-year deals like the Lakers have done the last two seasons. It gives you better players and a chance to build continuity.
Settling for 1-year deals in pursuit of cap space flexibility limits the talent a team can put on the court, the continuity the team needs to be a winner, and the trading chips to take advantage of opportunities to improve the roster.
2. Mega Luxury Taxes Are Price of Admission to Compete for Title
While NBA teams have recently made moves to reduce luxury tax bills, the Lakers are unique among major big market competitors in that they’ve been unwilling to pay mega luxury taxes like the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets.
We’ve seen that in the Lakers’ decision not to re-sign Alex Caruso, a player whom they could have definitely used as a trading chip at the deadline or as a valuable rotation piece as they struggle to win enough games to make the NBA playoffs. We’ve also seen it at the trade deadline in the Lakers’ refusal to accept the Rockets offer of Christian Wood in trade because of the potential luxury taxes re-signing a young talent like Wood could ultimately cost the franchise.
While the Lakers were never willing to pay significant luxury taxes back in the days the franchise was run by Dr. Jerry Buss, times have changed and big market teams like the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets have now raised the bar to compete. While the Lakers may not have billionaire owners like other franchises, they also need to continue to invest in building their brand by doing what they have to do to compete in today’s NBA, even if that means mega luxury taxes.
With the salary cap and luxury tax threshold increasing next year, NBA teams as a whole seem to be making moves to limit how much luxury taxes they will have to pay, especially the small market teams who often never pay luxury taxes. Unfortunately, the big market teams seem intent on raising the bar to compete for an NBA championship. There was a point in time when the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets were slated to pay over $100 million in luxury taxes.
The Lakers need to wake up and understand that the reason the franchise is worth almost $5 billion is because of the 17 NBA championships they have won. Luxury taxes are the new price of admission to be NBA champions.
3. Two Superstars with Deep Roster Better Than Three Superstars
The Lakers’ and Nets’ experience with superstar big threes suggests two superstars with a deeper balanced roster could be the better team building model than three superstars for winning multiple NBA championships.
The two superstar model is just so much easier to put together. Just look at the potential personality and fit issues a team encounters trying to make three superstars work. There’s something about ’two’s company, three’s a crowd.’ That’s not even dealing with the issue that there’s only two other starters, which makes building a viable two-way starting and closing lineup near impossible, especially if all you can afford are players on minimum salaries.
Right now, the Lakers’ 15-man roster consists of 3 superstars on maximum deals, 2 players in Horton-Tucker ($9.5 million) and Nunn ($5 million) on non-minimum contracts, and 10 players on rookie or veteran minimum contracts. Being so top heavy, the Lakers other two starters should logically be Talen and Kendrick since they’re being paid more. Unfortunately, Horton-Tucker has regressed from his sophomore season and Nunn has not been able to play.
Imagine if the Los Angeles Lakers were able to replace Russell Westbrook and his $44.2 million annual salary with three quality rotation players like Eric Gordon ($18.2 million), Christian Wood ($13.6 million), and Alec Burkes ($9.5 million)? That’s basically the route the Lakers should be looking to take this summer by trading Westbrook to the Thunder for Derrick Favors ($9.5 million) and a $34.7 million trade exception to be used to acquire additional players.
While the Lakers are anxious to find a younger third superstar to replace LeBron James when he retires, right now they need to focus on finding two or three legitimate championship caliber players to complement their two superstars.
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