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The Lakers are no longer elite... yet

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The Los Angeles Lakers, one of the most storied franchises of the National Basketball Association with 16 championships and 31 finals appearances, is no longer an elite team. They are going through one of its worst stretches in franchise history, losing 60 or more games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since its inception as the Minneapolis Lakers in 1947.

They are not able to secure the top players in free agency despite having enough money in the salary cap to sign anyone they wanted. Making matters worse, the Clippers, the other team in Los Angleles who were a laughingstock while the Lakers were winning titles, is now the best team in the city and is an attractive landing spot for players.

As a lifelong Laker fan, going back to the days of Showtime in the 1980s, this is a troubling reality. It appears that the losing stretch will continue, but what the team is going through is just a speed bump to getting back to the top of the mountain.

How do I know? History suggests it. Since the Showtime Lakers, how many significant free agents have the Lakers signed away from teams that significantly improved their franchise? The answer: One. That would be one Shaquille O’Neal during the 1996 off-season. Back then, O’Neal was an unrestricted free agent after his rookie contract was up and whoever gave him the most money was going to sign him.

In today’s NBA, with its current collective bargaining agreement in place, the Orlando Magic, who O’Neal played for in his first four years, would have been able to match what the Lakers were offering with O’Neal being a restricted free agent. Also, the Magic would have been able to give him more money and an extra year guaranteed on his contract if he was an unrestricted free agent, which he turned out to be. Another point is that Shaq wanted to do movies and be more than just a professional basketball player and moving to the bright lights of Los Angeles would help him achieve that.

Now, I know the Lakers signed future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton, who took less money to play for the team in 2004 to win a championship, but they were well past their prime to team with Shaq and a budding young superstar Kobe Bryant already there, a season that was destined for glory ended up being a tumultuous season that ended with the team losing in the finals to the Detroit Pistons.

Going back to O’Neal, he was one of a kind, and that’s the reason he’s the only player the Lakers were able to land. They tried to make the same pitch of the “bright lights of L.A.” to LaMarcus Aldridge, another key free agent during the 2015 offseason, and he quickly scratched the Lakers off his list of potential teams to sign with.

Today’s free agent, especially one in the prime of his career, wants to have the potential go to a situation to win a championship if he is going to take less money and go to another team. A perfect example is Kevin Durant, who just signed with the Golden State Warriors, who have won a title and went to another finals appearance from a season which saw them win an NBA-record 73 games. The acquisition of Durant pushes the Warriors as the outright favorite to win the NBA title in 2017.

Speaking of the Warriors, their team was built through the draft. They selected two-time league MVP Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Harrison Barnes. Three of the four players will be representing the United States in the upcoming Olympic Games (Curry would have, but is rehabbing a knee injury). No significant free agent was even considering coming to them via free agency until Andre Iguodala signed two years ago. Now they have Kevin Durant to add to a team that had the best regular season record in NBA history at 73-9.

The same applies to the Clippers. After all the years missing on landing a cornerstone player in the top of draft, they finally got it right with the selection of Blake Griffin with the top pick in 2009 and DeAndre Jordan in the second round in 2008. With those two in place, along with trading for top point guard Chris Paul, the Clippers have a solid team which can re-sign their core players and bring key free agents to improve the squad.

With that said, the Lakers are headed in the right direction. In the last three drafts, they have selected Julius Randle (#7 overall 2014), D’Angelo Russell (#2 overall 2015), and Brandon Ingram (#2 overall 2016 draft). They also have a solid shooting guard in Jordan Clarkson, who just re-signed for four years. All four players are under the age of 25 and a nice building block for first-year head coach Luke Walton, who himself was a member of two championship teams for the Lakers in 2010 and 11. So be patient Laker fans. It’s not going to happen overnight. The team went the entire 1990s without winning a title. With time and the development of its young squad, the Lakers will once again be a landing spot for top free agents.