And that brings me back to that original Dwight Howard quote. Would he have even taken a meeting with the Warriors had they missed or been swept out of the playoffs or even considered the Rockets a team on the way up if they’d decided to tank last season rather than try to make the playoffs and win those two games?
That Westbrook injury might turn out to be the most significant reason for the Rockets winning a championship one day. Not only did it make the Rockets look better than they really were but it damaged the Thunder just enough to make anyone believe that the Western Conference was wide open. Before that series began, 14 of ESPN’s 18 experts predicted the Rockets would lose in either four or five games. That was probably because the Thunder had won five of the six games they’d played against Houston with Westbrook in their lineup and the Rockets needed 46 points and a nearly perfect shooting night from James Harden in the only game they won of the six.
Some might interpret all of this as sour grapes but it isn’t. I’m not bitter that Dwight left. I’m bitter that he was so heavily influenced into thinking that teams that hadn’t accomplished anything were suddenly looked at as legitimate title contenders. The Lakers weren’t allowed to use all of their injuries as an excuse for why they only won 45 games but other teams are allowed to use crystal balls and hype to declare themselves contenders before even winning 50 games?
What we saw this summer couldn’t help but remind me of the Summer of ’96. Had the Lakers not been considered a team on the rise would Shaquille O’Neal have left a 60-win team that advanced to the Conference Finals for one that won 53 games and, like last season’s Rockets, were eliminated in the first round? That team had youngsters like Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, and some high school kid from Philadelphia. Even if Shaq had been influenced by what L.A. offered outside of basketball, that perception might have been what ultimately sealed the deal.
Take the biggest free agent names over the last few seasons and classify them into two different groups. The first group is made up of names like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh; the guys who teams lusted after. The other group consists of names like Amar’e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, and Carlos Boozer; these are the guys who teams not only settled for but also had to overpay for because they missed out on the other group and needed to save face with their fans.
Somehow one team managed to snag all three of those guys in the first group. The Lakers need to figure out what it was about Miami that convinced LeBron, Wade, and Bosh to all pick the Heat when two of them could have paired up and played for any number of teams that had enough cap space to sign two of them outright? You can’t discount the opportunity for all three of them to easily team up as the most important reason. Obviously Pat Riley’s mafia boss persona and history of success played a key role. Lastly, intangibles like the absence of a state income tax and warm weather can’t be ignored.
The Heat also had something else important going for them. Besides Cleveland, the Heat were not only the only team from the five LeBron met with that had a winning a record during the regular season, they were also one of only two to make the playoffs. The Bulls, who also made the playoffs, finished the season at 41-41 and were eliminated by LeBron’s Cavs in five games.
We’ll never know how big a role the Heat winning 45 games and avoiding the first-round sweep with that crummy roster played. What we do know is that there’s enough evidence to suggest that teams with plenty of cap space have fared better in free agency by trying to be competitive than by tanking. Even though the league’s new CBA has made it difficult to build a through free agency, and even though it has become extremely popular for teams to stink for a couple of years and try to rebuild through the draft, we’ve seen stranger things happen.
For teams like the Lakers who aren’t bad enough to guarantee themselves a top-four pick, tanking would be idiotic. There are way too many guys on this current Lakers roster with too much pride to willfully tank, anyway. Instead, the focus of the draft has to change from where they’re drafting to who they’re drafting. Taj Gibson, Quincy Pondexter, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, and even Chandler Parsons are just a few guys who were drafted outside the lottery who are considered important contributors on teams considered title contenders. Others like Kenneth Faried and Iman Shumpert aren’t on legitimate contenders but would be welcome additions to any team in the league.
The Lakers don’t want to end up with guys like Stoudemire, Boozer, and Joe Johnson . They want the LeBron-Wade-Bosh tier. As good as this draft class is predicted to be, there isn’t a prospect in it who could convince a top free agent in his prime that he could compete for a title right away if they teamed up.
Whatever it is that differentiates an old car from a classic car is what the Lakers need to figure out this season and apply it. You can probably count on one hand the number of seasons since the late 70s when the Lakers weren’t considered at least one of the preseason favorites to win the title. Unfortunately, this upcoming season happens to be one of them. This one will be more about figuring out who stays, who goes, and what puts them in the best possible position to continuously improve within the constraints of the new CBA. All of the low expectations and pundits predicting 31-win seasons are not necessarily a bad thing. There’s currently a “Bad Luck Schleprock” cloud that’s been hovering over them since the beginning of last season.
Even if it’s likely that they’ll be 1-5 after a tough opening slate of games, 12 of their following 17 are against teams that missed the playoffs last season. Finish that stretch with a record above .500 and suddenly you’re one of the league’s early surprises and getting positive press. End it with a 6-16 record and suddenly you’re a punchline on the late night talk shows and you’re wearing that same stink that franchises like the Astros, Raiders, Jaguars, and Bobcats currently have on.
There will be no shortage of drama this season. What happens between now and April will have a huge impact on what type of team they’ll have one year from today. Here’s hoping they know it.