It is a tale of two roads taken: the Los Angeles Lakers are heading into a summer rebuild after a disastrous season, while the San Antonio Spurs just won a fifth NBA championship, avenging last year's bitter loss to the Miami Heat.
One team was once fueled by star-power and is now trying to find its way again. The other continually replenishes its roster through pragmatic team-building and the best international scouting program in the NBA.
The former is the LA Lakers. The latter is the San Antonio Spurs. Should the former be taking notes from the latter?
Spurs' Taste for International Talent
For Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, a belief in the value of overseas players was rooted in early personal experience.
Born to a Serbian father and Croatian mother, Popovich attended the Air Force Academy, playing basketball and majoring in Soviet Studies. Later, while on active duty, he played throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as a member of the U.S. Armed Forces basketball team.
Writing for ESPN The Magazine, Seth Wickersham notes that Pop’s military experience, along with a return trip to Europe as an assistant coach with the Spurs, solidified his belief that an untapped wealth existed in international basketball:
Pop knew the stigmas against foreign players: They wouldn't play defense, they wouldn't socialize, they wouldn't learn English, they weren't strong dribblers, they couldn't handle a reduced role, they were soft. ‘I thought that was really ignorant,’ Pop says now. ‘I couldn't believe that it was a pool that wasn't being used.
But to spend time inside the Spurs organization today is to uncover another interpretation of the Spurs dynasty: that as America's youth basketball pipeline has produced a type of player that Pop has no interest in coaching, he has found an advantage not only in targeting international players but in avoiding domestic ones.
The Spurs’ current roster features nine players born outside the 50 states.
Tim Duncan got the ball rolling for the Spurs’ international movement. Born on the island of St. Croix, Duncan swam competitively before turning to basketball in his early teens. He came stateside to attend Wake Forest University and was selected by San Antonio as the No. 1 overall draft pick in 1997.
Manu Ginobili (Argentina) on the other hand, was the No. 57 pick in 1999 and sent back overseas to develop—winning the Euroleague and Italian championships before finally joining the Spurs in 2002. And then there’s Tony Parker (France), the No. 28 pick in 2001 who like so many other members of the Spurs roster, has been heavily involved in EuroBasket competition during his NBA offseasons.
That’s just the tip of the Spurs foreign cast, which also includes Boris Diaw (France), Tiago Splitter (Brazil) and Patty Mills (Australia). More recent arrivals include Aron Baynes (Australia), now in his second season as a Spur, Cory Joseph (Canada) in his third season and Italian sharpshooter Marco Belinelli, who roamed around the NBA with four prior teams before signing with San Antonio last July.
And then there's the draft picks the Spurs stash overseas for experience and development. Some were born there and some weren’t.
As J.E. Gomez for Pounding the Rock explains, San Antonio’s international incubator includes Livio Jean-Charles (born in France) who currently plays for Asvel—a team owned primarily by Parker. There’s also Adam Hangs (born in Hungary, playing in Latvia) and Ryan Richards (born in England, playing in Vienna).
The Spurs’ international road map isn’t strictly limited to foreign-born players. Marcus Denmon, an American, was San Antonio’s No. 59 pick in 2012 out of the University of Missouri and subsequently sent overseas to marinate. Denmon is currently playing in Turkey. The same goes for Deshaun Thomas who attended Ohio State and was the Spurs’ No. 58 pick in 2013. Thomas is now hooping in France.
Lakers' Reliance on the NCAA System
Meanwhile, the Lakers have decreased their international focus in recent years, allocating the majority of resources to the college ranks which produce a vast number of NBA draft entries each year.
A shift in the team's scouting operations occurred three years ago, in May 2011, after Phil Jackson left as the team’s head coach.
At the time, some 20 employees were let go in a mass housecleaning, including the scouting staff of Ronnie Lester, Gene Tormohlen, Irving Thomas, Kevin Grevey, Gary Boyson and Adam Filippi.
As Lester, who had headed scouting since 1997 said to Ramona Shelburne of ESPN LA:
I know from 10 years of being around those guys, they know what they're talking about and when you lose guys like that, who know your culture, how you do things, it's not going to be easy to bring someone else in here, or for whoever else is going to do the scouting, you're losing great experience with those guys.
These days, Jesse Buss (youngest of the Buss siblings) and Ryan West (son of Jerry) run point on scouting operations from a small office in the team’s El Segundo headquarters. In the office next door is longtime consultant Bill Bertka who will celebrate his 87th birthday in August.
Thomas and Grevey from the earlier scouting regime were eventually rehired. Also on staff are Jordan Wilkes (son of Jamaal) and Chaz Osborne, a longtime friend of Jim Buss from their days in the horseracing business.
The concentration is on the college game—a logical bit of numbers-crunching when you look at the amount of ground that can be covered closer to home.
During an interview with Alex Lambeth and Jory Dreher for Lakers Nation, Jesse Buss pointed out the emphasis when interacting with Kupchak and with his older brother Jim:
But mainly we collaborate with college scouting and anything involved with that. I like to think that I’m constantly an information source for anything that’s going on scouting-wise for them. During the entire draft process, which is basically the whole year once the college season starts and even a little bit before that with the tournament, camps, and workouts, we collaborate almost every day in preparation for the draft.
This isn’t to say the Lakers have entirely foregone the overseas process. Kupchak and Jesse Buss travel to Italy each year for a scouting combine of international players. Management also hired European scout Antonio Maceiras as part of the 2011 transition.
In an interview with heinnews, Maceiras extolled the growing value of international players. When asked why the Lakers have been slow to the European market of late, however, the scout didn’t have a clear answer:
To tell you the truth, I cannot give you a right answer on that. I know what the background is. And I know that I am doing my best in bringing in the best possible information. I am not going to think that my job is successful or not depending on the Lakers’ decisions. I cannot predict what the Lakers will decide. And to tell you the truth I prefer to just focus on looking for the players and doing my job than thinking about how the players will fit in the next draft.
The Lakers finished their season with just two foreign-born players, both of who are now free agents. Pau Gasol was born in Spain and acquired by the Lakers in a February 2008 trade with the Memphis Grizzlies while Belgium-born Xavier Henry was signed as a free agent after three years with the Grizzlies and New Orleans Hornets.
It is only fair to point out that the Lakers have in fact considered foreign players in recent years. In 2011, the Lakers drafted Chukwudiebere Maduabum from Nigeria and Ater Majok from Australia, at the No. 56 and 58 spots respectively.
Mauduabum was immediately traded to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for a future second-round draft pick. Majok was never signed by the Lakers, who still hold his rights. The same is also true for Chinemelu Elonu from Nigeria, drafted in 2009.
NBA teams who don’t sign their draft picks retain future rights for one year after the expiration of that player’s first non-NBA professional contract. Those rights continue to roll over, as long as no more than a year of inactivity occurs. Majok and Elonu, who are both 6’10” center/forwards, have played continuously around the globe since their respective draft nights.
Could either be useful to a team with only three players under current guaranteed contract? That’s a matter for the Lakers’ current scouting staff to decide.
In truth, however, Majok and Elonu are hardly the point. An ambitious and forward-thinking model practiced by Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford, is part of the Spurs’ larger philosophy of diversity, inclusion and team play for the greater good.
L.A. has the No. 7 pick this year in the draft. They’d love a shot at Australian point guard sensation Dante Exum but it’s doubtful he’ll still be available when it’s their time to pick. Dario Saric, a 6’10” Croatian forward, led the Adriatic league in scoring this season and is an intriguing possibility, but the Lakers could elect to go with someone they have scouted heavily and worked out—such as Marcus Smart, Noah Vonleh, Julius Randle or Aaron Gordon.
There will also be veteran free agents this summer that could appeal to the Lakers, such as Polish-born center Marcin Gortat who helped power the Washington Wizards into the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs this season, or Luol Deng—the forward born in Sudan who was traded from the Chicago Bulls to the Cleveland Cavaliers in January.
Charting an international road map isn't predicated on instant results, of course. The Spurs have been doing this for years, tracking young players who are off the beaten path. While most U.S. scouts chart domestic prospects through a massive prep and high school system that filters into the NCAA pool and perhaps the NBA, San Antonio looks abroad.
The Lakers would be wise to follow the Spurs example.