Why the Lakers’ championship spells trouble for NBA’s small-market teams

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The Los Angeles Lakers players celebrate after the Lakers defeated the Miami Heat 106-93 in Game 6 of basketball's NBA Finals Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The Los Angeles Lakers are your 2020 NBA Champions. After defeating the Miami Heat in six games, the Lakers were awarded the franchise’s 17th Larry O’Brien trophy, tying them with the Boston Celtics for the most victories of all time. While the NBA is likely thrilled that the game’s biggest Star in Lebron James guided the league’s most storied franchise to a title, the NBA’s small-market teams are likely frustrated. The fact is, the Lakers built their championship core through free agency, which is something teams based outside of New York and Los Angeles simply can’t afford to do.  

The Lakers won because they had Lebron James and Anthony Davis. How did they get them? Let’s take a look: James signed with the Lakers after his second stint with the Cavaliers in hopes to attract another star to play with him in LA. Initially, he was unsuccessful. Luckily for James, the Lakers had been tanking for years and accumulating players taken with high draft picks. Instead of signing a big free agent, they shipped Lonzo Ball (a former 2nd overall pick), Brandon Ingram (a former 2nd overall pick), Josh Hart (a former first round pick) and the 4th overall pick to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Anthony Davis. Then the team filled out the rest of the roster with veteran free agents on team-friendly contracts. Of the 13 players on the Lakers roster, only one was drafted by the team: Kyle Kuzma. Compare that to the six Miami players who were drafted or brought up through the team’s G League affiliate, and it’s clear that the Lakers will never have a shortage of good players willing to sign there.  

Why would small market teams be frustrated with this? The answer is simple: free agents don’t sign in small markets. These teams live and die on their ability to draft and develop players. Look at the Golden State Warriors, who built a dynasty using non-premium draft picks. Because if the team was ever bad enough for the first overall pick, they’d have trouble paying the bills. Instead, they used the seventh overall pick on Stephen Curry, the 11th overall pick on Klay Thompson and the 35th overall pick on Draymond Green. These players combined for three titles, five finals appearances, two league MVPS, 11 NBA All-Star appearances, and a Defensive Player of the Year Award all before any of them turned 32. Yes, this team ultimately got help through free agency with Kevin Durant, but the Warriors core was already established, accomplished and dominant. They got Durant because of what they did in the draft, not in spite of it.  

Kawhi Leonard of the Toronto Raptors shooting a free throw at Game 2 of the 2019 NBA Finals. (Photo by Chensiyuan/Wikimedia Commons)

The Toronto Raptors last year won the NBA title without a single top-10 draft pick on the roster, being the first NBA team to ever do so. They built a competitive team every year, drafted extremely well and eventually traded their excess assets to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard. Then, Kawhi carried the team to their first ever championship and all was well in Toronto. Until, of course, Kawhi left Toronto in free agency to join the LA Clippers in a bigger market with nicer weather.  

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Bucks, who turned the 15th overall pick in 2013 into a back-to-back MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, will likely never sign a big free agent like the Lakers, Clippers and Brooklyn Nets have been able to. Even still, they have made a living off developing castoff players like Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe into all-star caliber contributors. As a result, they’ve finished first in the Eastern Conference in back to back seasons. The problem is they haven’t made it past the conference finals in either season and help through free agency is not on the way. There’s already talk that Giannis will leave in free agency because he knows the Bucks won’t be able to recruit a second superstar as long as he’s in Milwaukee. That’s why the “Lakers Model” of drafting high, ignoring development, signing big free agents and trading away disgruntled draft picks for other stars is simply not an option for the Toronto’s and Milwaukee’s of the NBA.  

Without taking away the greatness of Lebron James and Anthony Davis, the NBA needs to discourage this method of team-construction. Yes, it’s great that the NBA’s biggest market won the NBA Championship, but what about all those draft busts, fired coaches and meaningless games that came before Lebron James saved the day? Whether it’s by limiting the number of players each team can sign in free agency, adding a third round to the NBA draft to encourage player development in the G League or via some other way, the NBA needs to help out their small-market teams. Most of them are doing all they can, while teams like the New York Knicks just sit around and hope a super-star wants to play at Madison Square Garden. That’s not fair.  

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