With the dust starting to clear after the first two days of free agency, it’s pretty clear the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks never had much of a chance at any of the top names on the board. While guys like DeAndre Jordan, Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge might have been willing to listen to their offers, the best players in the NBA don’t want to sign for teams at the bottom of the standings, regardless of the market. Greg Monroe wound up signing in Milwaukee rather than take the Lakers or the Knicks money.
Monroe looked at the Bucks' deep roster of young talent and Jason Kidd’s ability to get the most out of his players and saw a situation where he could play for a team on the rise. Neither the Lakers nor the Knicks could offer the chance to contend for the playoffs immediately or put a team around him that could maximize the strengths of his game and minimize his weaknesses. Aldridge wanted the Lakers to focus more on basketball and less on branding in their meeting with him.
These guys are basketball players before they are anything else. How much is Carmelo Anthony really enjoying New York when he watched the franchise blow up the team around him and not get much of anything in return for Tyson Chandler, JR Smith and Iman Shumpert? No one’s brand is really improved when you are playing for one of the worst teams in the NBA. If anything, all that losing is worse in a big market because of all the attention. No one cares about a bad team in Milwaukee. A bad team in New York is still on national TV 20+ times a year.
Either way, playing on a losing NBA team is miserable. The regular season is a long and brutal grind of four games in seven days for almost six months. It’s difficult enough when you are winning and everyone is happy - it’s excruciating when you are losing and everyone knows their job is on the line. Free agents on a bad team start to play for their own numbers and their spot in the league. The only guys who are going to find that appealing are young players who can take advantage of the opportunity to up stats and make a name for themselves.
The Knicks won 17 games last season and the Lakers won 21. If they played in smaller markets, no one would have been calling them players in free agency, regardless of how much cap space they had. If there’s anything we have found out in the last few years, it’s that teams with attractive rosters can generate cap space easier than teams with cap space can generate attractive rosters. In the last few days, the San Antonio Spurs and the Phoenix Spurs were both able to dump salaries at the drop of the hat to create room to sign Aldridge.
It doesn’t matter whether you are in Los Angeles, New York, Milwaukee, Phoenix or San Antonio. Everyone has to build a team the same way in the modern NBA - piece by piece from the ground up. The Spurs have been doing this for longer than just about everyone else while the Suns and the Bucks have assembled talented young rosters over the last few seasons. No one with options wants to sign with a team in order to be a part of the puzzle. They want to be the final piece of the puzzle.
For as much bad publicity as the Lakers got for their botched initial meeting with Aldridge, there wasn’t much they were going to be able to say to convince him to sign over the rest of his career. A 30-year-old veteran isn’t enticed by guys towards the end of their careers or young players just starting their own. They want to win right now and they are basing their decisions on the guys who will be on the court with them next season. In that sense, the best thing that could have happened for the Lakers and the Knicks was a quick rejection from the big names and a move towards signing players who can contribute the next time they are relevant.
While both are reportedly aggressively pursuing Robin Lopez, his former team decided to let him walk for nothing when faced with a similar situation. The Portland Trail Blazers are looking down the road, which means making sure that young guys like Mason Plumlee, Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard have a chance to get on the floor and play through their mistakes. There aren’t any talented young centers on the Lakers and the Knicks roster at the moment and that’s the real problem. It’s not to say that Lopez can’t help those teams, just that he probably won’t be a starter when they are ready to compete for playoff spots again.
What they should be doing is looking under every rock for talent and using their cap space to take chances on unheralded young guys with room to grow. Milwaukee picked up Khris Middleton as a throw-in for a trade and Phoenix acquired Eric Bledsoe the same way. When those guys became free agents, their teams could match any offer they received on the market. When was the last time the Knicks or the Lakers had a restricted young free agent everyone else wanted?
Forget Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony. The guys that matter for the Lakers are D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson and the guys that matter for the Knicks are Kristaps Porzingis and Jerian Grant. When those guys can start winning games on their own, they might be able to attract a big-time free agent to come play with them. That’s the timetable that both franchises need to be on, regardless of any of the media noise that might be out there.
A rebuilding team has to emphasize youth and build through the draft. The real concern for both teams isn’t that guy are turning them down in free agency - it’s that they won’t have a chance to add much talent in next year’s draft. LA only has Top 3 protections on a pick they gave up to Phoenix (now in Philadelphia) as part of the Steve Nash trade. New York has a pick swap with Denver as part of the Carmelo trade and then they have to send the lower of those picks to Toronto to finish off the Andrea Bargnani deal.
Not having those 2016 picks is a sword of Damocles hanging over both franchises and it could push any return to relevancy much deeper into the future. There are precious few shortcuts to becoming a contender in the modern NBA, regardless of where you play. If the young players the Knicks and Lakers already have don’t live up to their pedigree, there’s no telling how long two of the NBA’s marquee franchises could be in the basement.