Can 2013-14 LA Lakers Pull off Spurs-Style Return to Glory?
As the San Antonio Spurs have put the Miami Heat on their heels in the NBA Finals, it's making a lot of people rethink how to build a basketball team, and perhaps the Los Angeles Lakers should take note.
Two years ago, the general consensus was that the Spurs were too old and that they were looking at a slow degradation into a team in dire need of a rebuild.
They lost to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs, and injuries plagued their late-season run. Cries following their loss to the eighth seed were that the Spurs were in flux, and they were too old at the top to compete with younger groups of players.
The following season seemed to do nothing but hammer that point home. A two-game lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals turned into a six-game loss when the Thunder started making shots and outrunning them
But the Spurs never panicked. They made risky moves, sure, but nothing they did ever symbolized the front office gasping for air.
Here they sit two years later, two wins away from winning their fifth NBA championship since 1999.
Along the way they made interesting moves, none of which really knocked around the makeup of their team.
Most important was trading George Hill for Kawhi Leonard on draft day following their ouster in the 2011 playoffs. But smaller, less expensive moves were made along the way.
Gary Neal was an addition following the 2010 NBA Summer League and remained a minor player throughout the 2011 season and beyond.
Danny Green was signed, waived and signed again during the 2010-11 season, playing just four games during the regular season and seven whole minutes in the playoffs.
Boris Diaw and Patty Mills were free-agent additions during the 2012 season after they were cut or didn't have their contracts renewed by other teams.
The point here is that the Spurs were able to rebuild their team through a subtle draft-day trade, summer league additions, low draft picks and other team's castoffs. How were they able to find the right low-paid players to fit into their system? They tried out half of the D-League in the process.
From the summer of 2010 through the end of this past season, the Spurs have signed (and waived, for the most part): Neal, Bobby Simmons, Alonzo Gee, Chris Quinn, Garrett Temple, Green, Ime Udoka, Larry Owens, Steve Novak, Othyus Jeffers, Green again, Da'Sean Butler, Gani Lawal, Ike Diogu, Malcolm Thomas, Eric Dawson, Diaw, Justin Dentmon, Mills, Derrick Byars, Derrick Brown, Josh Powell, Sherron Collins, Eddy Curry, James Anderson, Aron Baynes and finally Tracy McGrady.
Through a vigorous trial-and-error period, San Antonio was able to find three key players (Green, Neal, Diaw) and two extremely entertaining benchwarmers (Mills and McGrady). That, along with the key draft-day trade for Leonard, is what transformed San Antonio into a title-contending team that suddenly isn't that old anymore.
So is that a viable path for the Lakers to take, should Dwight Howard re-sign with the team, of course?
Over that same period of time that the Spurs were trying out every possible D-Leaguer for the hope of a flicker of promise, Los Angeles gave trial periods to Trey Johnson, Troy Murphy, Jason Kapono and Chris Douglas-Roberts. Every other player was either already on the team, their own draft picks or signed with the hope of some actual production.
In three seasons, the Lakers tried out four over-the-hill or marginal players to the Spurs' 27. Three of San Antonio's turned into current rotation players, none of Los Angeles' did.
You can't find gold if you never dig for it.
What remains to be seen about the Lakers, and what was never in question with the Spurs two years ago, is whether or not their core can actually play together. Sure, we saw flashes of greatness bookended by horrible, unsynchronized play, but it's hard to say with confidence that Los Angeles' lineup actually works as it is under Mike D'Antoni.
And of course, there are other concerns: Dwight Howard's back, Kobe Bryant's ankle, Pau Gasol's chronic injury problems this season and the age of Bryant, Gasol and Steve Nash in general.
However, it does seem as if San Antonio got a bit lucky in their resurgence.
Duncan followed up the worst two seasons of his career with one that landed him on the All-NBA First Team, while Kawhi Leonard took a huge leap, and Manu Ginobili's injuries and struggles were overshadowed by Tony Parker looking like the best point guard in the NBA.
The Lakers' fortunes have yet to be determined, but they do have a willingness to cooperate that wouldn't have been believed only a year ago. Bryant exhibited that throughout the season, working to distribute more and get his teammates involved, as did Gasol, accepting whatever role he was put in, albeit begrudgingly at times.
What's most important to Los Angeles' success?
All they need now (besides a bit of luck in recuperating), is for Howard to find the same level of cooperation and dedication as everyone else.
Beyond that, the most important step for the Lakers to take is getting the front office to think creatively.
No longer is their goal simply acquiring stars (although retaining one wouldn't hurt), it's to find younger players who could create an adequate rotation surrounding the stars already there.
Whether it means exploring a trade into the draft (perhaps involving Gasol, or a sign-and-trade around Howard, should it come to that point), or throwing every D-Leaguer at the wall and seeing who comes out clutching for dear life as the Spurs have done, creativity is a necessity.
Free agency is hardly an option, and few players in their ranks are going to end up making big steps forward, so it's time to look in every other channel.
It might take some time, but a return to glory is certainly not out of the question for the Lakers.
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