2011: Lost to eventual champion Dallas Mavericks
Ever Since: Struck out on nearly every big free agent, unable to rise back to their dominant winning ways.
In fact, the current playoff drought is the longest it has ever been for the Lakers. This is an organization that has never had a problem landing free agents in the past. Elite players like Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, James Worthy, Moses Malone, and Shaquille O’Neal completely transformed the NBA when they made their decisions to go to the most storied franchise in NBA history. And why wouldn’t they? Aside from the great management and weather in Los Angeles, playing for the Lakers has offered players a chance to develop their personal brand in an environment that is always in the spotlight.
Right outside of Hollywood, the Los Angeles Lakers have enjoyed masses of celebrity endorsements, fabulous TV deals and worldwide broadcasting ever since their move in 1960 from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. The team won championships, expanded its fan base into uncharted territories, and gained in intangible assets what few other teams could possibly hope to offer to its free agents.
So even though the Los Angeles Clippers offered Shaquille O’Neal better coaching, greater autonomy, higher salary, an arguably better team, and the same exact weather (and arena) as the Los Angeles Lakers, he chose to join the Lakers. It was this decision, in 1996, that helped Shaq launch his own shoe line. It was this decision that helped him launch his acting and rapping careers, gain international recognition and endorsement deals, and gain immense fame and wealth both inside and outside of the basketball universe.
And this extra edge doesn’t end with the Lakers. Organizations like the New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls, and Miami Heat have all enjoyed their status as Big Market teams for decades, being able to pull the biggest names during Free Agency periods because of the lucrative opportunities they present in terms of fame and wealth outside of basketball.
But technology is rapidly leveling the playing field for big market teams and small market teams alike. It is making the world a much smaller and much more interconnected place, leading to the success of personal player bands based on their talent and level of success in the sport, not the organization that they are a part of.
Take, for instance, Charles Barkley, who enjoyed a great level of success in his career as a member of the Pheonix Suns. Because of the small market of the organization he played for, he was still regarded by a relatively small number of fans both domestically and internationally, and did not have an established personal brand until after his career was already over. Compare that to Suns star Steve Nash, who many can argue had a less productive career than the also-ringless Charles Barkley, and yet Steve Nash is a household name throughout America and internationally regarded as a superstar. Before, players had to compete and share a spotlight. During Charles Barkley’s time, it was dominated by the stars of the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls, and Boston Celtics. But during Steve Nash’s time, we saw a significant shift- the spotlight became available for anyone who earned it, despite what organization they were playing for and despite who else was attaining superstar status in the NBA.
And today, we are seeing a different kind of Free Agency in the NBA. LeBron shocked the world by going back to one of the smallest organizations in all of professional sports, the Cleveland Cavaliers, in order to support his home state. His elite personal brand, endorsement deals and economic success will be unfazed by this move from the big-market Miami Heat back to the Cavaliers, because of the ability of technology trends to make geographic location irrelevant, and their ability to eliminate the reliance of the individual upon the organization. In fact, most of the superstars in today’s NBA have fabulous personal bands despite being from traditionally small-market teams. This includes players like Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans, or Damian Lillard of the Portland Trailblazers. Even 19-year old Zach Lavine of the (relatively unknown) Minnesota Timberwolves has an enormous following that reaches as far as China, in recognition of his incredible dunking ability.
So maybe it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that the biggest names in free agency have been spurning teams like the Lakers and Knicks for the past several years. Before, these organizations used to be able to tell free agents “You need US.” And they were right, for many different reasons, especially if players wanted success outside of basketball. But now, more than ever before, the conversation has changed to “We need YOU”, and that is making the entire landscape much more leveled in the NBA for landing free agents.