“Today, the basketball gods smiled upon the Nets.”
In the summer of 2013, Mikhail Prokhorov, the Nets’ billionaire owner, took a victory lap in the news release announcing his team’s trade for a pair of future Hall of Famers. The cost to get Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn was extreme — a grab bag of players and three first-round picks plus a fourth coming via a swap of picks.
Hindsight has shown us those weren’t the basketball gods smiling that day as much as it was them laughing. The Nets’ trade was a franchise-crippling disaster resulting in zero trips to the conference finals and zero 50-win seasons. Pierce left after one season. Garnett barely made an impact and was soon out of the NBA.
Brooklyn was left with a miserable rebuild ahead of them, their draft picks all in the Boston Celtics’ pockets.
The lesson in all of this is clear — there are no shortcuts to building an NBA champion.
The basketball gods smiled Saturday upon the Los Angeles Lakers, the team agreeing to a deal for Anthony Davis that will shape the future of the franchise. The cost was even steeper than the one paid by Brooklyn — two former No. 2 overall draft picks in Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, another former first-rounder in Josh Hart and, essentially, control of the Lakers’ first-round picks for almost the entirety of the next six years.
Like the Nets, who were trying to find footing in a new market by making a big splash, the Lakers essentially had to make this kind of deal. It was foolish to think the Lakers could continue to try to simultaneously build around two separate cores at once with a ready-made winner in LeBron James in one hand and a group of players in their very early 20s in the other.
It was also foolish to think the Lakers, who have struggled to attract free agents outside of James, would be able to change that this summer after their dysfunctions were made public in a series of exposés and in a very bizarre resignation speech by Magic Johnson.
A trade was the only route, and even though the cost was high, the Lakers are back where they want to be, a few shrewd moves away from serious contention in a suddenly brand new NBA.
The NBA is about to enter one of its most transforming offseasons in recent memory, with a new NBA champion (Toronto), superstars potentially on the move (Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and so on), and injuries reshaping the landscape of the Western Conference.
The timing is perfect for a team like the Lakers to make a push, and “push” is probably not a strong enough term to capture what trading for Davis means to the Lakers’ immediate future. They can’t be the only ones who noticed what the Golden State Warriors went through during the NBA Finals.
The Houston Rockets seem open to some kind of mild reboot around James Harden, and the right moves could have them back in the conference finals. Denver, the surprise team last season, has the pieces to be aggressive if they want to try to make a move to propel themselves forward.
The Clippers, too, could be players, especially if they’re able to lure Leonard to Los Angeles — the kind of move that would force them to operate like they’re contenders instead of a team patiently waiting for a window.
Dallas is viewed by some NBA people as a sleeping giant with Luka Doncic and, presumably, Kristaps Porzingis. Counting out Portland, the Spurs or the Warriors seems like it would be a mistake.
Maybe New Orleans is more serious about getting back into the playoffs than people realize, suddenly stocked with young talent to pair with Jrue Holiday and — maybe — another experienced starter if they want to try to use the Lakers’ No. 4 pick in a trade to acquire a star.
With money to spend in free agency, with a draft that does not offer much difference between the late lottery picks and the rest of the first round and with teams seemingly motivated to act now with the league as open as ever, the time is right to be aggressive.