The Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers are currently in the latter stages of two dramatically different off-seasons, fit into the larger context of the latter stages of two first-ballot Hall of Fame careers. The Mavericks are being hailed as big winners this summer, while the Lakers, who lost out on Carmelo Anthony, watched Pau Gasol sign with the Bulls, and still do not have a coach, are the laughingstock of the city they used to own.
The truth is, both teams did masterful work.
Knowing where you are in the success cycle is the most important thing to get right in dictating a team’s overall strategy. Even more than looking at positional need and scheme fit, well-run teams focus on acquiring assets — players, salaries masquerading as players, cap space, draft picks, trade exceptions, etc. — that maximize the team’s chance of winning a championship whenever that is next a reasonable goal.
Whichever teams maximize most intelligently towards their target, whenever that is, will be championship contenders at that time. The failure to hit a clear target, and enact an all-in maximization towards one timeline or another, was at the center of my criticism of the Rockets on Monday for their off-season.
Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant are in a similar stage of their careers. If Bryant can recover from his latest knee injury — and I am betting he can — they both have enough in the tank to lead a championship roster under the right circumstances. So how can two opposing approaches each be correct? Let’s look at the Mavericks and Lakers in detail:
Added: F Chandler Parsons (RFA), C Tyson Chandler (trade), G Raymond Felton (FA), C Greg Smith (trade), F Rashard Lewis (FA)
Subtracted: PG Jose Calderon (trade), C Samuel Dalembert (trade), G Shane Larkin (trade), F Vince Carter (FA), F Shawn Marion (FA)
The Mavericks are a win-now team, with a beloved superstar player still near the top of his game late in his career. Rejuvenated in 2013-14 by the surprisingly complimentary offensive games of Dirk Nowitzki and new acquisition Monta Ellis — credit goes to Ellis for buying in to mastermind Rick Carlisle’s culture — Dallas has now upgraded literally everything around them.
They swapped out their starting 1 (Felton replacing Calderon), 3 (Parsons replacing Marion/Carter) and 5 (Chandler replacing Dalembert). At all three spots, the Mavs are younger. With the possible exception of point guard, they are also clearly better.
Mark Cuban and GM Donnie Nelson picked on the right teams, the Knicks and Rockets. Both teams were open to moving productive players to create salary cap space for max contract unrestricted free agents. The Mavericks, who have no more than two seasons left to win a title around Dirk, gladly took advantage, losing only second-round picks and the unproven Larkin as the cost of upgrading 60% of their starting lineup.
There are issues. Parsons is overpaid in present form, though he may have untapped potential. The bench unit will sorely miss Carter’s offense, and none of the four starters around Chandler are plus defenders in space, to put it nicely.
But Carlisle is a wizard, and will give the intelligent, physically-limited veterans a sound system to defend in, with zone hybrid looks mixed in. He will also continue to substitute creatively to give Dirk extended run with the second unit. He is masterful at staggering minutes and balancing his lineups. Look for Ellis and Parsons to anchor some four-minute stretches with the starters mid-quarter at times.
Cuban and Nelson know they are not going to win another Dirk-era title in the loaded West as a perennial 6-through-8 seed. The road is too demanding from there. They also know they cannot lure superstars as effectively as the coastal powers. Give them credit for making moves that should boost them comfortably into the West’s top five, putting them in the championship hunt in 2015-16, while their window is still ajar.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers have one of the dozen or so greatest players of all time — a five-time champion with an impeccable reputation as a competitor — signed through 2016 for serious coin. That player also happens to be hell-bent on winning a sixth championship to match his idol, Michael Jordan.
The Lakers are winning this off-season because they are completely ignoring the wishes of Kobe Bryant, while simultaneously appearing to be addressing them.
Pau Gasol has moved on to the Bulls after receiving polite, disciplined interest from the Lakers, for whom he won two championships alongside Bryant and starred for the past six-plus seasons. GM Mitch Kupchak is in no position to overpay for a 33-year old center with rapidly declining athleticism and defensive performance. Pau’s offensive game is still sophisticated and effective, but he is now only useful to a team with a championship core already in place.
Kupchak also failed to ink Carmelo Anthony. The pursuit of Anthony made sense, as he would have jolted the roster’s talent level to a place where retaining Gasol would have made them semi-dangerous. But the pursuit of Anthony was never more than a contingency outside of their long-term plan, a “why not?” curiosity to make another run at a ring in the Bryant Era. The talent simply isn’t there, and losing Anthony to the Knicks was likely a blessing in disguise.
The subsequent trade with the Rockets was genius. Jeremy Lin will sell a few tickets and fill the cap for 2015 — the Lakers have too much prestige and phony commitment to Bryant to assemble a roster below the salary floor. More importantly, after Houston lost out on Chris Bosh and Chandler Parsons within 48 hours of the deal, the first-round pick the Lakers received for taking Lin’s contract suddenly looks like it could creep up into the teens, increasing its already-significant value as an asset.
The Lakers then re-signed Jordan Hill and Nick “Swaggy P” Young, both in manageable ways. Hill’s contract is only for a year with a team-option, a cap-filler with team control should be blossom, and Young’s longer-term deal is below market value at $5M per season, giving the Lakers some scoring punch alongside Bryant and a movable contract, if not an asset, down the road.
They chose not to use the stretch provision on Steve Nash’s expiring deal that would have spread out his cap hit over the next two seasons, instead choosing to let him play it out in 2015 and swallowing the hit in full now. Nash is no longer physically functional, and that move, more than almost any other, is a leading indicator they are not planning to compete next season.
I say almost any other because the Lakers somehow still do not have a coach. On July 16th. They haven’t played a game in three months. They are likely going to finalize a deal this week with former Nets/Hornets/Cavs head coach — and Lakers playing legend — Byron Scott. Why Scott? He is a terrible coach for the modern NBA, with poor Xs and Os knowledge and questionable player development in his last stop with Cleveland.
Because Kobe wants Scott, his former teammate and mentor. Scott is beloved by players for his easygoing personality, playing cred and willingness to cater to stars. Cleveland initially hired him as part of their 2010 pitch to keep LeBron, which backfired and left them with a poor coach for a discipline-challenged roster. Before that, Scott only stuck around as long as he did in New Orleans because he was Chris Paul’s BFF.
But this (likely) hire is also fitting the plan. Because truth is, as far as coaching ability goes, it does not matter who coaches the Lakers this season. At all. That coach’s primary job is to keep Kobe from going public with his frustration when the team is 8-15 on Christmas Day. By respecting Kobe’s wishes, the Lakers hope to insulate themselves from an appearance by Petulant Kobe.
And they do not care if they win. Heck, the Lakers were willing to keep Mike D’Antoni for a lame duck season just to avoid paying two coaches, and he can’t even appease Bryant.
On the one hand, the Lakers overpaid Bryant and will likely give him the power-sharing coach he desires, regardless of whether that guy can actually coach.
But they did this for a brilliant, ironic reason: they know that Kobe Bryant will not be the centerpiece of the next Lakers championship team. Whether that player is Kevin Love (2015 UFA), LaMarcus Aldridge (2015), Kevin Durant (2016) or a star who has yet to appear, the most important duty the Lakers have is to manage the transition to the next Showtime era as gracefully as possible, and ignore the wishes of the veteran star they cleverly appear to be catering to.
Dirk may win another title. Kobe will not. Both their teams are managing those realities masterfully.
Job well done.