The Los Angeles Lakers have dominated the recent headlines with their front office shakeup. Will Magic Johnson and his new team be able to help the Lakers start dominating on the basketball court?
The NBA’s golden franchises always have a place in the news cycle. While Sacramento has to sell off an All-NBA player for peanuts to get its name in the headlines, teams such as the Knicks, Bulls and Lakers always have a place on the front page.
This season looked at first to be one and the same, as early news items that would be lost in the wash in Memphis or Milwaukee were the talk of the NBA town if they came from New York or Los Angeles.
Then the drama happened, as the Big Apple exploded with racist innuendo and petty stabs through the media. The Knicks not only dominated headlines, but they were denigrated top to bottom for their poor decisions both on the court and off.
The Los Angeles Lakers were not to be outdone, seizing back the spotlight as the calendar flipped to 2017. Former Hall-of-Fame Lakers guard Magic Johnson was publicly announced as the future president of basketball operations for the Lakers. He toured the country giving interviews and making appearances, laying hints of a shakeup that came much sooner than expected.
On February 21st, just two days before the NBA Trade Deadline, Lakers governor Jeanie Buss and Magic Johnson struck. Jim Buss was removed from his position as vice president of basketball operations, and general manager Mitch Kupchak was likewise removed. Player agent Rick Pelinka was named Kupchak’s replacement as general manager.
This shakeup of the Lakers’ leadership was swift and decisive, removing the former leadership and installing a new regime. What sort of effect did this change have on the trade deadline, and how will it affect this offseason and the years to come?
This Trade Deadline: Meh
The Los Angeles Lakers should have one primary goal this season: to lose as many games as possible. That’s an unusual goal for a sports team, since the entire point is to win, but for the Lakers losing this season is the best way to win down the road.
The Lakers are currently tied for the second-worst record in the league with the Phoenix Suns. Come June, if the Lakers are awarded a top-3 pick in the draft lottery, they keep their pick. If it falls outside of the top-3, they lose their pick to the Philadelphia 76ers and their 2019 first-round pick goes to the Orlando Magic. Losing will mean a lot to this team.
Lou Williams was having a career year this season for the Lakers, meaning he was hurting this team’s chances of losing. Magic Johnson needed to act quickly to evaluate the trade market for Williams. Whether he did a thorough vetting or not, he moved almost immediately, trading Williams for a first-round pick and Corey Brewer’s contract.
This was not the best haul for Williams, as Brewer is owed over $7 million for next season and Houston’s pick will be in the mid-to-late 20s. If another team was willing to offer their pick straight-up, as many were rumored to do, the Lakers could have kept their books cleaner for this upcoming summer.
That being said, it wasn’t a bad deal for a microwave guard that the Lakers needed to trade. They made another few small moves around the deadline to clear out their backcourt of veterans, flipping Marcelo Huertas for Tyler Ennis and waiving Jose Calderon. This leaves no players in the Lakers’ backcourt older than 24.
Other than Swaggy P, that is. Nick Young is 31 and playing well this season, and the Lakers would have been smart to shop him around at the deadline. Perhaps they did, with no takers, but any value recouped for Young would have been positive for Los Angeles.
In all, Johnson and Pelinka did just fine at the deadline, moving the team in the direction of youth – the best way to ensure losing.
This Offseason: Needle Didn’t Move
The Lakers were always going to struggle to make much of an impact this offseason, as they tied up much of their cap space in foolish long-term contracts for Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. Swapping Williams for Brewer ends up as a wash for this season as well.
The true goal for the Lakers this offseason will be the draft, and their hopes are planted in the lottery balls. If they retain their first-round pick, an elite talent will be gift-wrapped for them. While their one largest need is a center of the future (and no true candidates are floating around the top of the draft at the pivot), the Lakers overall just need talent and the lottery is flush with it.
The true test for this new front office is their ability to evaluate talent. Despite their free agent misses, the Lakers have drafted well over the past few seasons. Julius Randle is not a superstar talent, but no one selected directly after him is either (no one was taking Nikola Jokic with the seventh pick).
Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, and even Ivica Zubac all look like strong picks later in the draft, and while D’Angelo Russell isn’t an All-Star the Lakers resisted the option of taking Jahlil Okafor over Russell, which looks like a brilliant move now.
Can Pelinka and Johnson draft equally well, or better, with just a few months on the job to evaluate talent? And come free agency, can they maximize future cap space without overpaying for short-term veterans and undervalued young pieces?
2018 and Beyond: Already Showing Fruit
The summer of 2018 is both a long way away and quickly approaching. With the Lakers unlikely – and hopefully unwilling – to add win-now talent this offseason, they will most likely trudge through another down season next year.
But their eyes should be on the summer of 2018, when they can truly begin courting stars in free agency. Derrick Favors, Brook Lopez, Isaiah Thomas, DeMarcus Cousins, and Carmelo Anthony can all hit free agency that season.
The reason the new regime is already making progress is the strength of rumors swirling around Paul George. The current Indiana Pacer was a star of the trade deadline, as the Pacers explored moving him ahead of his 2018 free agency. The reason? His supposed interest in bolting for Los Angeles.
A native of southern California, George is an elite wing and a player the Lakers should absolutely pursue. The rumors about George’s interest in signing with his hometown Lakers did not surface until after Magic Johnson’s hiring. Coincidence? Perhaps.
But the presence of both Johnson and Pelinka will almost certainly give the organization more interest among star free agents. This team should flip from ignored come July 1st to back at the table. Once there, Magic’s ability to win people over could make him a force in the negotiating room.
There is no guarantee that George or another free agent will come to the Lakers, but Magic Johnson and his new front office will be more of a sway than Jim Buss ever was. If he can surround himself with smart people who understand the CBA and know how to evaluate players, then the team has the opportunity to pull out of the muck and contend again.