Anatomy of a Rebuild: Brooklyn Nets vs. LA Lakers

“Happens to everyone — time to time everyone goes bust. You’ll be back in the game before you know it.” — Joey Knish, Rounders

Upon hearing Lakers’ owner Jeanie Buss say recently the team’s biggest challenge was “fake news” coming from the media, I couldn’t help but picture Brooklyn Nets’ GM Sean Marks flipping over a table in a fit of rage, and not because of the hackneyed phrasing.

What had to make Marks’ blood boil — besides the patent falsity of the statement — was how quick Buss was to adopt a mentality of victimization, despite overseeing the NBA franchise with every conceivable advantage baked into the very core of its existence AND being one of the primary agents responsible for the current “challenges” in the first place. Marks can probably sympathize with the actual team-building challenges the Lakers have faced over the last several years, as to some degree they mirror his own, so it has to be frustrating to watch the league’s flagship team dismissing them in favor of banal nonsense.

The real challenge for both teams over the last half-decade has been how to recover from gambling big on fading stars, and losing in catastrophic fashion. For the Nets, the culprit was former GM Billy King’s 2013 trade for aging legends Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, a deal considered by many to be the most damaging trade in NBA history. King could have burned the Barclays Center to the ground and done less harm to the Nets than he did with his managerial incompetence. Preceding the KG/Pierce debacle, in which he gave up what amounted to FOUR unprotected first round picks, in 2012 he also traded Portland a top-3 protected first rounder for the desiccated remains of Gerald Wallace, a pick which would become Damian Lillard the following summer. The pick was top-3 protected because King explicitly stated at the time he didn’t believe there was anyone outside the top three worth selecting in that draft. Prior to that, he made the somewhat more defensible move of trading for Deron Williams in 2011, who was still a 26-year-old, All-NBA caliber player at the time, even though the trade essentially ended up costing them three first round picks. Unfortunately, King then doubled down on the move by re-signing D-Will to a 5-year/$99 million contract in 2012, Williams rapidly declined, and the contract became an albatross. Williams was waived in 2015 via the stretch provision, and his $5.5 million cap hit finally comes off Brooklyn’s books after next season. You’ll be shocked to learn that after starting the 2015-16 season 10-27 with a roster featuring none of the aforementioned players, King was mercifully removed from his post as GM and “reassigned within the organization.” There’s a Catholic priest joke in there somewhere, but let’s just quit while we’re ahead.

The Lakers’ woes can be traced back to the 2012-13 season. In the summer of 2012, former GM Mitch Kupchak (sensing a theme?) completed what turned out to be disastrous trades for an aging Steve Nash and a recovering-from-back-surgery Dwight Howard. The season which followed was one of the NBA’s all-time terrible soap operas. Nash and Howard never meshed with Kobe, and a team with championship aspirations won only 45 games and was handily swept by the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. Adding injury to insult, Kobe tore his Achilles’ tendon late in the regular season, ushering in the decline phase of his career and all of the ill-conceived, denial-tinged front office decisions that would follow.

Nets’ GM Sean Marks/AP Photo

Brooklyn would make the playoffs in both seasons following the KG/Pierce trade, but never became anything more than early round cannon fodder. After the 2014-15 season, the bottom fell out. Marks would be hired in February 2016 after the ouster of King, and he would immediately set to the task of unwinding the previous regime’s numerous mistakes. The challenge seemed insurmountable at the time. Marks inherited a mostly gutted yet still somehow capped-out roster, and his decision-making was inescapably handcuffed because there was no incentive to tank for draft picks, as they were all owed to Boston for the foreseeable future. Brooklyn’s night was truly dark and full of terrors.

Nevertheless, he persisted. No NBA GM bats a thousand — see the Nets’ inexplicable infatuation with Allen Crabbe, for example — but Marks seems to have made lemonade despite not even having access to lemons, much less sugar and water. His tenure has been one shrewd move after the next to acquire picks and undervalued players, all with his eyes focused on the horizon rather than the end of his nose:

  • February 2016: within a week of being hired, waives roster flotsam Andrea Bargnani and Joe Johnson.
  • April 2016: hires Kenny Atkinson as head coach.
  • July 2016: trades Thaddeus Young to Indiana for the draft rights to Caris LeVert and a future 2nd-round pick.
  • July 2016: signs Joe Harris (AKA the NBA’s current leader in 3P% who also just beat Steph Freaking Curry in a shooting contest) to a 2-year minimum deal. [Harris has since re-upped on another team-friendly 2-year deal, this time for $16 million total.]
  • December 2016: signs Spencer Dinwiddie off the scrap heap.
  • February 2017: trades useful but superfluous wing Bojan Bogdanovic to the Wizards for what amounts to cap relief and a protected 1st round pick, which is used the following summer to select current starting center Jarrett Allen.
  • June 2017: trades Brook Lopez and draft rights to Kyle Kuzma to the Lakers for Timofey Mozgov’s millstone contract and D’Angelo Russell. [Put a bookmark in this one for a moment.]
  • July 2017: trades Justin Hamilton to Toronto in exchange for taking on DeMarre Carroll’s semi-onerous contract and 2018 first- and second-round picks. They would later select Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs with the picks.
  • February 2018: a classic bit of NBA personnel ridiculousness — trades mostly useless center Tyler Zeller to Milwaukee for Rashad Vaughn and a 2018 2nd round pick. The pick would be used on hyper-athletic Kentucky wing Hamadou Diallo, who would then be moved to Charlotte, along with a future 2nd, cash, and the still-toxic contract of the aforementioned Mozgov for none other than Dwight Howard, who would be waived without ever playing for Brooklyn. In essence, Brooklyn paid two second-round picks and a few million bucks to rid themselves of the final year of Mozgov’s deal.
  • July 2018: Marks uses his cap space yet again to acquire Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur from Denver, gaining a 2019 first and a 2020 second as sweetener in exchange for easing the Nuggets’ luxury tax burden.
  • July 2018: signs Ed Davis with the midlevel exception.

To recap: in three years, Marks took a roster with no high-end players and no first-round picks until 2019, and manufactured an entire team currently sitting 6th in the East out of nothing more than available cap space, Kyle Kuzma, and a few useful veterans who were never going to be part of their next good team anyway. He signed Harris and Dinwiddie off the street, acquired keepers LeVert, Allen, and Kurucs for nothing they will miss long-term, retained all of his future firsts while plucking an extra one from Denver, and snagged a distressed asset and 2019 All-Star (Russell) as the sweetener for absolving the Lakers of their Mozgov mistake, which Marks was then also able to trade away! Plus, they still have the cap space to sign a max free agent this summer! Absolute wizardry.

Timofey Mozgov and D’Angelo Russell | Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Speaking of the Lakers…

Currently 31-37 (four games behind the Nets FWIW), 11th in the West, and on the verge of missing the playoffs for the 6th straight season, LA’s return to glory has been a bit more, let’s say, circuitous. This despite having the allure of Los Angeles, a revenue stream which dwarfs that of every other franchise, a metric shit-ton of lottery luck, and oh yeah, the best player since Jordan deciding to sign with them as a free agent. If Brooklyn is the self-made millionaire who overcame his hardscrabble upbringing, then LA is the trust fund kid who fucked around too much and never made anything of himself.

I suppose one could argue the Lakers are victims of their own success, but it involves letting an awful lot of organizational incompetence slide. Jeanie Buss (and Mitch Kupchak, and Magic Johnson, and Rob Pelinka) should be taking a hard look in the mirror rather than trying to point the finger at the media for their struggles. There was inevitably going to be a transitional period as Kobe declined and retired, and his injury, coupled with Dwight’s inability to assume the mantle as the franchise’s next superstar, altered the nature and timeline of the transition. But even with this caveat, boy, the Lakers’ front office sure has made a mess of things:

  • July 2013: a year after being acquired in one of the most bizarrely impactful trades in NBA history, Dwight Howard leaves $30 million on the table to bolt the Lakers and sign with the Rockets in free agency. Sources at the time said Dwight did not want to play with Kobe or for head coach Mike D’Antoni anymore. The team has no means of replacing Dwight’s production, and with Kobe and Nash missing almost the entire ’13-’14 season with injuries and Pau Gasol gamely playing center surrounded by a rotating cast of misfits, the team craters, going 27-55.
  • November 2013: despite the catastrophic injury, Kobe signs a 2-year/$48.5 million extension through ’15-’16. Even at the time, the contract is rightly viewed as a well-above market golden parachute for the franchise icon.
  • April 2014: Mike D’Antoni resigns as head coach with a 67-87 record over less than two seasons. The Lakers pay him approximately $2M to go away. [In a hilarious bit of foreshadowing, Magic Johnson tweeted at the time, “Happy days are here again! Mike D’Antoni resigns as the Lakers coach. I couldn’t be happier!” Remember, kids: be careful what you say on social media; it may come back to bite you in the ass.]
  • June 2014: Lakers draft Julius Randle with the 7th overall pick and trade cash to the Wizards for the rights to second-round pick Jordan Clarkson. [OK, not terrible!]
  • July 2014: entering free agency with enough cap space to sign a max free agent, the Lakers miss out on all the big fish and instead end up doling out multiyear deals to Nick Young, Ed Davis (no disrespect, Easy Ed), Jordan Hill, and trading for the final year of Jeremy Lin’s poison pill contract from Houston in exchange for a 2015 first rounder, which turns out to be Larry Nance, Jr.
  • July 2014: Hire Byron Scott as head coach.
  • June 2015: After a 21-61 season in which a 36-year-old Kobe misses another 47 games and declines precipitously when he does play, the Lakers are rewarded with the 2nd overall pick in the draft. They select D’Angelo Russell.
  • April 2016: the Kobe Farewell Tour concludes with an unfathomable 17-65 record. Kobe averages 28 minutes and 17 FGA per game in his final campaign, effectively blocking Russell’s development in the process.
  • April 2016: Byron Scott is fired as head coach and Luke Walton is hired as his replacement. After three execrable seasons, the Lakers finally appear committed to a proper rebuild.
  • June 2016: The ping-pong balls again fall in LA’s favor, granting them the 2nd overall pick in the draft. They select Duke forward Brandon Ingram. They also snag big man Ivica Zubac with the 32nd overall pick. Nice!
  • July 2016: And here’s where it goes off the rails. Amid the historic cap spike, Kupchak essentially bids against himself to shower the trio of Timofey Mozgov, Luol Deng, and Jordan Clarkson with four-year contracts totaling $186 million. All three deals almost immediately become albatrosses and end up costing the team significant assets to get off their books.
  • February 2017: GM Mitch Kupchak is fired and replaced by Magic Johnson, who had joined the organization as a consultant just 19 days earlier. Nothing fishy there.
  • June 2017: after another lousy season — purposeful this time, at least — the lottery gods gift the Lakers yet another no. 2 overall pick. They select Lonzo Ball, along with his malignant narcissist of a father.
  • June 2017: the Mozgov/Russell for Lopez/Kuzma trade is completed.
  • July 2017: mostly keep their powder dry in free agency, signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and really no one else of consequence.
  • July 2017: Paul George is traded to OKC, despite persistent rumors he would be headed to the Lakers, either via trade or in 2018 free agency. [Add another extremely tampered-with bookmark.]
  • February 2018: trade Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. to the Cavs for the corpses of Channing Frye and Isaiah Thomas, along with a first-round pick, which would become Moe Wagner.
  • July 2018: sign LeBron James. [OK, hard to knock this one, though it’s fair to question whether the Lakers signed LeBron or vice versa.]
  • July 2018: rescind the qualifying offer for 23-year-old restricted free agent Julius Randle, making him an unrestricted free agent. He signs with New Orleans on an extremely team-friendly deal and is currently averaging 21/ 9/ 3 on 53% shooting for the Pels.
  • July 2018: do not make an offer to retain free agent Brook Lopez, who signs with the Bucks instead, where he becomes an integral part of a championship contender.
  • July 2018: fail to secure a meeting with free agent Paul George, who re-signs with OKC for the max. [Insert conspiracy theory here.]
  • July 2018: instead use the cap space earmarked for PG et al to sign Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, and Michael Beasley as free agents.
  • September 2018: waive Luol Deng using the stretch provision. He will count against the Lakers’ cap through 2022.
  • November 2018: sign an aggressively washed Tyson Chandler after he is bought out by Phoenix.
  • January/February 2019: the failed attempt to strong-arm New Orleans into trading Anthony Davis. The soap opera includes numerous leaks from within the organization detailing exact trade discussions, causing a rift within the locker room.
  • February 2019: in search of shooting, they trade promising rookie shooter Svi Mykhailiuk and a 2021 second-rounder to Detroit for Reggie Bullock.
  • February 2019: in search of more shooting, they trade rare organizational success story Ivica Zubac and whatever the opposite of that is, Michael Beasley, to the Clippers for Mike Muscala. In nine games with the Lakers so far, the former Bucknell Bison is playing 8.4 minutes per night and shooting 27.8% from downtown. Zubac has started all 13 games he has played with the Clippers, and they are 9-4 since acquiring him.

Ouch. When we put the two resumes side-by-side, a noticeable pattern emerges. One team was clear-eyed about the depths to which it had fallen and put a plan in place to rise from the ashes. They hired smart people early on — executives, coaches, scouts, etc. — and empowered them to do their jobs without being stabbed in the back or having their job security yanked around. They identified undervalued assets and took advantage of teams motivated to move them (cough, Lakers, cough). They embraced the stylistic changes in the league and acquired players with corresponding skill sets. They did not burn cap space simply to do so, and instead leveraged their inability to land elite free agents to their benefit. Less than four years removed from utter collapse, the Nets have created a fun, young team headed back to the playoffs, and perhaps more importantly, a positive organizational culture in which players feel invested.

While Brooklyn has repeatedly turned chicken shit into chicken salad, the Lakers have mostly done the exact opposite. At nearly every turn, the front office has failed to properly gauge their position within the competitive cycle. They flushed three full seasons down the toilet attempting to surround a clearly diminished Kobe with a contending roster instead of preserving cap space and restocking the war chest, only to be bailed out of their lousy decisions time and time and time again by lottery luck. Then, when Kobe finally retired and it appeared they were ready to commit to a youth movement, they immediately got antsy and lit all their cap space on fire on washed-up veterans for no discernible reason. When that “strategy” predictably failed, they were forced to sell off real assets for pennies on the dollar to clean up the prior mistakes, including Russell (the overlap in this stupid Venn diagram), who, after his much-publicized professional growing pains, may wind up being the best player to come out of the whole mess.

As if they hadn’t received enough good fortune, one of history’s greatest superstars decides to join their team at the tail end of his prime, for reasons which increasingly appear to not be about actual basketball. But instead of surrounding LeBron with the kinds of shooters who have proven successful over the years, the Lakers squandered their cap space again — along with one of LeBron’s last elite individual seasons — on the most ill-fitting cast of jagaloons imaginable. Then, when that “”strategy”” (I needed extra quotation marks for the amount of heavy lifting they are doing here) predictably failed and it was far too late, they sold off even more useful assets (Mykhailiuk and Zubac) to bring in the shooting they could have simply paid for (or developed) in the first place. Lakers’ brass committed organizational malpractice over and over and over again, and then still had the temerity to suggest the media was culpable for its handling of the AD debacle, WHEN THE CALLS WERE COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE!!! GTFOH!!!!!

At this point, short of lucking into another top-4 pick in the draft — which will almost certainly happen because there is no damn justice in the world — the well may be too poisoned to complete a Davis trade over the summer. Even if a deal is still possible, it’s hard to fathom Magic and Rob will be able to negotiate and consummate it in a competent fashion anyway. And if the Lakers don’t get AD, they’ll be right back where they started: with an aging star, a new coach, cap space, and no needle-movers on whom to spend it. Unfortunately, by now we all know how that Hollywood story ends.

Top Photo Credit: Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

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