This week, Dallas owner Mark Cuban, after spending the last couple seasons executing a strategy to make Dwight Howard a Maverick, said his franchise is actually better off without him. By not landing this summer’s big free agent prize, the logic goes, Dallas was instead able to sign a whole raft of dudes, including Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis, Samuel Dalmebert, and Devin Harris.
This, of course, is total horsepucky. No GM on the planet would trade that package of players for Howard. Like any guy who took a crack at the prom queen and failed, Cuban is saying whatever soothes his ego/fanbase.
And who can blame him for being sensitive? He wasn’t just jilted by Howard. After making the difficult (and correct) decision to not to lock into a roster fresh off a title in order to maintain the flexibility required to win another, Cuban made a push for Deron Williams. No go. He made a push for Howard. No go. He hoped Chris Paul might be an option, but that never got off the ground.
So instead, this year, says Cuban, becomes the first of a two-year plan to rebuild Dallas once again into a title team. The Mavs didn’t blow their future by signing Calderon and Ellis. They’ll likely have legitimate cap space after next season, and can take another crack at a much ballyhooed (though colossally overrated) group of free agents. If they don’t get what they want, Cuban will just add another year to his timeline.
But Lakers fans snarking at Cuban’s disappointment and pretzel logic might want to hold off, because there are too many similarities between the Mavs and Lakers to dismiss. The Lakers, like Dallas, have a still-excellent-but-aging star, an appealing market, and ownership willing to spend. They’ve also tried to rebuild without tearing things down to the studs, an extremely difficult needle to thread in the NBA. They are aiming for a free agency fueled rebuild, rather than building through the draft.
Want to argue that L.A. is a more appealing destination? Fine. In some ways it is. In others, not.
But in all ways, Cuban’s difficulty landing the big fish serves as a cautionary tale for the Lakers — owners of only two first round picks in the next four NBA Drafts — reinforcing the challenges inherent in constructing a squad using the open market as the primary roster-stocking tool.*
The free agent road is littered with potholes and best laid plans belly up in a ditch. Athletes change course. They play cities against each other. And just as importantly, while massive amounts of cap space creates great flexibility, it also isn’t conducive to telling a high profile free agent exactly what they’re getting into when signing on the dotted line. (Cue crotchety old man voice…) Stars these days want to know who their teammates will be.
Trust us, we’ll get you a supporting cast! isn’t exactly a great sales pitch.
The Lakers can have every intention of chasing LeBron James and/or Carmelo Anthony next summer — in other news, water is wet — but while they still have cache and appeal, the Lakers are not a magic cornfield in Iowa. Building it doesn’t guarantee free agents (whether literally James and Melo, or other coveted targets) will come.
There are other complications baked into the free agent rebuild. Because the young, super-appealing guys tend not to hit the market (those Paul George fantasies will only mock you) teams are generally left bidding on players like Anthony, more expensive and exiting their primes over the course of a four-year contract, a heck of a combo, or overpaying for potential restricted free agents (Eric Bledsoe, for example) by tossing out a big number their team won’t match.
So on one end, there are the perils of constantly chasing the elite free agents, as the Mavs have done with little success to this point. On the other, you have the Knicks, a franchise who put themselves in a box through high profile signings. Forever good enough to be interesting, not even close to good enough to win a title, left to pretend trading for Andrea Bargnani constitutes progress.
There plenty of other complicating factors, too. If they can’t get “the haul” (i.e. LeBron, and I am very skeptical) next summer, the Lakers will need to try again in 2015. How much does Kobe’s next contract eat into that space? How effective a recruiter will Bryant be? What other parts will be in place to entice another star? Who is coaching the team?
None of this is to say all is lost, that the Lakers are forever doomed. They’re not. They will win titles again. Maybe they get a little lucky, and next summer really becomes the bonanza many have talked about. But to to get a little Game of Thrones, here, winter is almost surely coming**. By local standards, at least. The Lakers can’t fight it. If the puzzle doesn’t fit properly the first time around — odds favor it — they’ll have to exercise some patience or risk consigning themselves to years of mediocrity, the most useless space a team can occupy.
*This is why I’ve advocated trading Pau Gasol for assets (picks, young parts) that might better work towards a rebuild. Speaking with a few league execs, the consensus is that the market for Gasol isn’t all that strong right now. Expensive player coming off surgery, etc. But if he plays well, it could definitely open up. Keep in mind, if a team picks Pau up halfway though the year, they’ll only owe half his salary, minus whatever is sent back to L.A.. Assuming a moment arrives where the Lakers can get some value for Gasol, they should.
**Of course, if I’m wrong and “winter” is code for LBJ, all of this becomes irrelevant. Should the Lakers actually ink James, attracting the rest of the team won’t be a problem. But like I said, for all sorts of reasons, I don’t see it happening.