The Lakers have the means to return to the top of the NBA, if they play their cards right.
When Lakers team owner Jeanie Buss hired Earvin ”Magic” Johnson as president of basketball operations in early 2017, it was in preparation for this moment.
A Lakers executive must ensure that the Lakers are an attraction for top-end talent. He or she must have the cachet to uphold the standard of a franchise rife with a winning attitude and culture, a franchise that is an essential part of the NBA’s seven decades of history.
So when the Hall of Fame point guard told reporters that he’d step down if he couldn’t land a marquee free agent for his former franchise within the next two summers, it came as no surprise. Magic is a winner, and if he can’t win at his craft—whatever it may be—there’s no reason to continue.
That’s why this moment was so important. It was Magic and general manager Rob Pelinka’s first major test, and they passed with flying colors, delivering LeBron James to one of the league’s most-storied franchises, and surrounding him with a good mix of tough-minded veterans and promising youngsters. Even if they remain absent of any other major changes or superstar offseason acquisitions—like Kawhi Leonard—Los Angeles will have a chance to compete and go deep into the playoffs for the first time since 2013 next season.
Promising starlets like Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram will have the opportunity to learn and expand their games playing with James. Tied as the two leading scorers for the Lakers last season with 16.1 PPG, they pair stood up well to the challenge of playing in the deep Western Conference. Just to put that in perspective, basketball savants raved about Jayson Tatum’s rookie year for Boston in the East, during which he put up 13.9 PPG in the regular season and increased in production to 18.1 PPG in the playoffs. Kuzma and Ingram managed similar production without having players like Al Horford and Kyrie Irving to alleviate pressure. We don’t talk about the Lakers young talent enough.
Their ability to see the court could certainly receive a boost from watching LeBron every night. They will also almost certainly receive their first bit of playoff action, and they’ll have first-hand exposure to the intangible qualities of James and veterans like Rajon Rondo, such as work ethic, gamesmanship, and smart, calculated preparation in the playoffs. It’s impossible to see the Lakers free agency additions as anything but a tremendous opportunity to accelerate the growth of young talent.
And then there’s Lonzo Ball. Most of the controversial, yet talented guard’s games last season were either brilliant or horrific. There were games that he spent far too much time shying away from the moment, chucking up poor shots from deep, finding it difficult to compete against the fierce guards of the Western Conference and making it easy for defenses to ignore him. And then there were the outstanding games that showed flashes of a young Jason Kidd, games where Lonzo dictated the pace, was aggressive and flirted with a triple double. Many would argue that when the Lakers played with the good version of Lonzo, they were at their best.
As a young floor general, the influences of Magic Johnson and LeBron James are obviously beneficial to him. But the Rondo signing is what brings Lonzo’s future into question. It’s fair to wonder whether Ball will be on the Lakers roster in the long term. After all, the two guards are built almost the exact same way: pass-first maestros who excel at getting teammates involved using court vision, anticipation and passing accuracy, but have their shortcomings when it comes time to take a jumpshot. You could look at this one of two ways: either the Lakers think Rondo can mentor and bring the best out of Lonzo on a one-year deal, or they plan to move Ball as part of a blockbuster trade and wanted a cheap short-term replacement.
Barring a trade, there will most likely be a fierce competition for the starting point guard spot in Los Angeles. For the sake of the team’s future, Lakers fans should want Lonzo to win in impressing fashion; it would be an encouraging development for a player who has had his moments, but has been far too inconsistent thus far. Rondo will push him, and at the very least, he’ll be a much better player from playing alongside him, even as a backup.
Moreover, the distinct possibility of major change looms. With the Lakers heavily speculated to be plotting a swoop for a superstar talent via trade, the futures of every Laker besides James cannot be predicted. The most prized and discussed target is, of course, Leonard. Plucking the disgruntled forward away from San Antonio will be no easy task, yet the Lakers possess all the leverage in trade talks.
The Lakers, having already signed James long-term, know that acquiring Kawhi now isn’t necessarily a must. Sure, they’d most likely leapfrog the Rockets as the most significant threat to the Warriors in the West, but only if they manage to keep a decent amount of talent to put around James and Leonard. And with Kawhi making it known that he intends to opt out and come to Los Angeles as a free agent next summer, mortgaging too many future draft picks and sacrificing most, if not all, of their young talent for Leonard doesn’t make sense. In addition, any other team that could put together an enticing package for the Spurs would only guarantee themselves a one-year rental of Leonard’s services. Thus, offers for Leonard should remain relatively small, whether they come from the Lakers or not. It should also be easy for the Lakers to continue to have the most to offer San Antonio, as they’re the only team with a guaranteed shot to actually sign Leonard to an extension besides the talent-deprived Clippers.
However, on the flip side, the Lakers have seen this movie before. Paul George was pretty much already a Laker, right? And then he committed to the Thunder for four years. If an organization like the Celtics or the 76ers takes a huge risk and trades for Kawhi, who’s to say what will happen? Kawhi might play deep into the playoffs, fall in love with his new team and never look back. Or perhaps Kawhi ends up in San Antonio at the start of the season and gets back on the court. What if he repairs his relationship with the Spurs and they can at least find common ground? Betting on a superstar’s intentions one year from now is dangerous.
Magic’s Lakers shouldn’t be hustled into giving up a ridiculously loaded package that leaves the rest of their roster barren. However, they should definitely have a reasonable sense of urgency, and they shouldn’t put all of their eggs in one basket. Options like Kemba Walker or Damian Lillard should also be explored. It’s a delicate balance that Johnson and Pelinka have to master. LeBron’s decision allows LA to take a more cautious, calculated approach to what they hope is the eventual acquisition of a top-five NBA talent, but they can’t confuse caution with overconfidence.
One thing is for certain: Magic Johnson has demonstrated that he won’t settle for seeing the Lakers in the doldrums of the NBA. However, in order to truly compete as contenders, they must avoid spoiling what is already a bright future, and be well prepared for the unexpected.
Edited by Peyten Maki.
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