The Lakers only worry about being the best as measured by NBA titles, a metric that’s about as black and white as they get. More points on the scoreboard more nights than any other earns the title of champion, something that can be envied but never disagreed upon. (Unless you believe in Tim Donaghy conspiracy theories, I think we all can agree the regular season and playoffs are a pretty good test of who’s best, yes?) What I’m saying is you might not want to, but the Lakers have been called champions many times before. But is the NBA world ready to call the Lakers the league’s smartest team?
That’s one takeaway from Bloomberg Businessweek‘s ranking of every professional sports franchise from MLB, NBA, NHL and NFL that rates teams on spending per win. Fiscally speaking, the Lakers over the past five years are the standard. Wins are weighted to reward for playoffs and wins when a team is over .500, then compared to the spending to get there. The Lakers are the very best in the NBA and fifth-best of the four leagues in that regard. As calculated over five seasons, L.A. averaged 16 more regular-season wins, 10.5 more wins over .500 and 8.21 playoff wins more than the league average, with a payroll $12 million more than average. Because it is weighted for more wins, you’re going to see the usual suspects near the top: Celtics, Heat, Orlando, Spurs and Thunder are 2-6.
Some trends such as recent success (and the promise some quick turnarounds have caused) don’t show up like you might expect because of that average’s window. Last season for the Clippers was a definite success, especially with a discount-rate Blake Griffin, though DeAndre Jordan‘s hefty contract for relatively little output and Chris Paul‘s salary, in part, balance out even a first-round series win. The Clips are 21st in the league. On the waning end of the scale is Cleveland, whose massive, off-a-cliff fall from LeBron’s heydays — a small payroll doesn’t matter if your win total is atrocious — is only beginning to be seen over the average (the Cavs are now at 11). The Trail Blazers’ promising core of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden peaked in 2008 and 2009, but the heavy investments into Roy and Aldridge never pushed the team’s quality wins high enough to get higher than 17th here, and that number should sink even more with last year’s payroll still high and its wins dropping. The Thunder have just entered this part of the homegrown star life cycle, where the cheap, early investment becomes very expensive on the heels of large contracts to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka in the last year. In Portland’s case, the wins didn’t follow the money.
With the good come the bad, and the realization that the cries of “KAAAHHHN” by Bill Simmons are quantifiably correct. The Timberwolves are the second-worst franchise in the four leagues, ahead of only the St. Louis Rams. GM David Kahn was hired in 2009, so predecessor Kevin McHale deserves part of the blame in the five-year window. The good moves to make Minnesota relevant (Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Rick Adelman) still can’t shake the many more that haven’t produced — such as giving Darko Milicic $20 million for four years. The Knicks are just pitiful, spending $18 million over the average for an average of seven fewer regular-season wins.
But what should be considered “smart” spending? It certainly isn’t the smartest team that can afford to pay the luxury tax and is thus willing to import talent established elsewhere for its wins. It’s a tricky mix, because for every Lakers there are the Redskins of Dan Snyder and the Knicks of James Dolan whose brutish spending has barely equaled relevance. The Buss family knows, however, that with 16 championships comes demand, and the revenue from the latter goes a long way to incubating the former. It’s rare that formula works backward. It is that situation that makes it intriguing to project how the acquisition of Dwight Howard could affect this, and what to feel about these rankings’ relevance, should the Lakers pay him a max contract in the 2013 free agency and incur an $85 million tax bill beginning in 2013-14. The Lakers could be so far over the average team salary that even with the extra weighted wins in an NBA title scenario, they could be pushed down. Champions yes, most efficient, no — a compromise any Laker would no doubt make.
At the very least, with any decision on how it worked out unavailable until next summer at the earliest, L.A.’s move was stunning. GM Mitch Kupchak, with a magician’s touch, transformed what looked like the end of the Lakers’ run of success (after a beatdown in OKC) into a suddenly monstrous lineup built for two or three more title runs. Buy low, sell high is the central business mantra, but it’s one the Lakers are setting up to eschew by preparing to buy at the highest level. Should it turn into a title, it will still be very costly. It might not show up as the “smartest” but they’re betting it pays off with one that’s inarguable: champion. The Busses value that the very most.
How will this season change this?
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