Between 1997 and 2012, a period of 15 years, the Los Angeles Lakers appeared in seven NBA Finals and won five of them. They did not have a single rookie starter nor did any rookie contribute in a significant way. The team was peppered with seasoned veterans acquired from other teams like Ron Harper, Brian Shaw, Robert Horry, Rick Fox, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace, and Trevor Ariza.
In the past three years, in the face of winning the fewest games in franchise history, the Lakers have embarked on a very different path than the one that worked for them historically. It took a while, but the front office finally accepted the fact that rebuilding through the draft was their only viable option.
While much has been written about the Lakers’ miserable 2015-16 season, during which the team finished with a record of 17-65, two years ago the New York Knicks finished with the identical 17-65 record. Then last year, they jumped to 32 wins, a very significant improvement in one season. No one has projected that the Lakers will finish anywhere near that win total this year — most Lakers fans would be thrilled with 32 wins.
The Knicks continued to build on their improvement by making a big splash this summer, trading for former All-Stars Derek Rose and signing Joakim Noah, who at one time were two of the best players in the league. They also added solid veterans Courtney Lee and Brandon Jennings.
Combining these players with holdovers Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, Rose pronounced that a mere two seasons removed from a 17-win season, the Knicks are a “super team” that can compete with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference. Is Rose crazy, or is Phil Jackson a wizard? One thinks of the Knicks as an “old” team, but Anthony is only 32, Noah 31, Rose 27, and Porzingis 21.
For the Knicks, staying healthy is the key, which is a big “if” given the history of their key players. If they do, they could win 50 games. That would mean they went from 17 wins to 50 wins in two seasons – a swift turnaround that Lakers fans were hoping would happen with their team. If the Knicks win 50 games in the media capital of the world, Jackson may have cemented his legacy as a front-office guru and not just a great coach.
There is a great deal of risk with the Knicks, however. Things could implode if Noah, Rose, and/or Anthony are injured, which has happened a lot in recent years. Further, there will be a problem if Porzingis does not improve as much as expected after his play slipped towards the end of last year. Still, Jackson is following the same strategy that worked when he led the Lakers to five championships, bringing in veterans and building the team around a couple of stars.
The Lakers are taking the opposite approach. Their fortunes are connected to eight players who are either rookies or have one or two years of NBA experience. While the Knicks have stars, the Lakers have none. The Knicks have to win right away because their roster is built for immediate results. The Lakers are poised to take baby steps, and they will only hit their full stride two or three years from now.
If the key to the Knicks’ season is their health, the key for the Lakers is seeing how far their young players progress this year. Ingram, Russell, and Randle have a lot of potential, but until that potential is realized, it is just speculation. If things break well for the Knicks they should be good for a couple of seasons, but if things break well for the Lakers they should be good for the next decade.
Which approach is better in the end? There is no answer to that question. It all depends on a team’s circumstances.
In the case of the Lakers and Knicks, both teams found themselves with limited options because of poor front office management. The Lakers allowed Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol to leave without getting anything in return, and through bad planning found themselves without any star player to replace an aging Kobe Bryant. Before Jackson arrived, the Knicks signed a series of big, long-term deals with mediocre players which hampered their flexibility, and they traded draft picks away and got little of value in return.
Neither team should get full credit for their current strategy. The truth is, in the past two years, both teams merely used what limited options were available to them. The Knicks had few draft choices and thus had to rely primarily on free agents and trades which resulted in some good albeit risky signings. The Lakers did not have attractive pieces to lure free agents, nor were there enough assets to make big trades without depleting the team, so they relied on the draft out of necessity. Of course, the Lakers should get credit for making the most of their draft picks (or so it appears).
Both the Lakers and Knicks have done what they needed to do. The Knicks have signed big name players and appear to have turned things around much faster than the Lakers. If they stay healthy, and the pieces fit together, they could indeed compete with the Cleveland Cavaliers next season (although it is almost certain that they will fall short in the end). On the other hand, if the Lakers’ young core develops over the next two to three seasons as many expect, the team will rebound and be poised to compete for a title indefinitely.
Lakers fans have bemoaned the team’s inability to rebuild more quickly through trades and free agency. Wouldn’t it be ironic if that turned out to be for the best?
It could happen if three years from now a starting lineup of D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram, and Ivica Zubac, with Larry Nance, Jr., Anthony Brown, and Tarik Black in reserve, turns out to be a perennial championship contender.