After Thursday’s NBA draft, Lakers’ General Manager Rob Pelinka spoke to the press about the selections the team made and what his plans for the future would be. At one point, when speaking about the D’Angelo Russell trade, Pelinka pivoted to wanting to maintain cap flexibility in order to sign two max level free agents in the future.
This prompted ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne to ask the following question:
The ability to add two max salaried guys, that’s thinking big; that’s swinging big. And they did that here once, what makes you think you can actually get those guys?
Rather than transcribe Pelinka’s answer, which was quite long, I think I can summarize it thusly: with Magic now at the head of basketball ops, there’s a new energy in the building that inspires a sense of confidence. Pelinka noted that this feeling isn’t just limited to the team, its staff, etc, but could be felt during the pre-draft workout process via prospects giving off a vibe of wanting to play for the Lakers; to wanting to be a part of where this organization is going. Pelinka also gets the sense this is true of players around the league and, via conversations and anecdotally, he believes the new energy and believing positively in what they’re doing is going to work out for them.
If this sounds somewhat familiar, it should.
I remember (then head coach) Byron Scott saying players were telling him during games that they wanted to play for the Lakers. I remember Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak clearing cap space to sign marquee free agents, confident that they’d reel them in. I mean, I remember Jim Buss being so confident in his ability to get stars to join the team that he actually told his siblings that he would step down if the team wasn’t a “contender” in the next three seasons.
Of course, 3 years later Jim Buss was relieved of his duties by his sister. So, it didn’t really work out for Jim now, did it?
I’m not coming to bury Magic and Pelinka. Stevie Wonder can see the difference in charisma and gravitas they bring in comparison to their predecessors. Plus, Magic Johnson really is a legend in and around the league. He is Showtime personified, flashing a million dollar smile and making you feel like you belong right there next to him as basketball royalty. He can pour it on a little thick sometimes, but he’s always selling you on what greatness can be around the corner and making you believe you can not only be a part of that, but be a key part in bringing it to fruition.
Another point that isn’t made enough is that the previous regime’s efforts to hoard cap space was, in essence, misguided in a lot of ways. I was a firm believer that as Kobe declined the Lakers should have been looking to add value contracts for mid-tier players who could help move the needle in the win/loss column steadily, rather than in huge chunks like superstars. With the team’s cap situation and how much money they’d dedicated to Kobe, they could never really add the number of stars they needed to anyway, which really hurt their chances when in the room with the biggest names.
Those failures, then, only served to taint the perception of them as recruiters. They couldn’t close. They focused too much on off-court opportunities. And on and on. After a while they couldn’t get meetings at all. And then, in the wake of that, they signed veterans to outsized contracts to make up for their inability to not lure the big names they chased in the first place.
For Magic and Pelinka, then, I can understand them believing they’ll have a better shot than Jim and Mitch. First of all, they actually have some young players who have the chance to be good. There is a foundation now and even if you have questions about how good some of these guys will be, it’s a discussion you can actually have and argue your side in the affirmative without coming off like a crazy person. Managing to keep nearly all off these players in house (to this point only Russell, which still upsets me, has been traded), while having cap space can be meaningful and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
I mean, just listen to Magic’s response to a question about whether the clearing of cap space and taking this approach is him betting on himself:
After the recent Lakers free agent whiffs I asked Magic if clearing cap space for A
another run was a bet on himself… pic.twitter.com/yN8XgQTr1D
— J.A. Adande (@jadande) June 23, 2017
(video via ESPN’s J.A. Adande)
I mean, I want to believe him. Look at him! He’s so confident! Here’s the thing, though. And maybe I’m repeating myself, but it bears repeating — it needs to work this time. There’s really no other way to say it. Magic just undid one of the previous regime’s biggest mistakes by trading away one of their most promising young players. And now he’ll have the cap room and spending power to execute his plan. Just like he said, he wouldn’t have done the move if he didn’t think he’d be able to spend the money.
Let’s just hope he’s not spending it on another Deng or Mozgov. Because when you listen to Magic’s words, they sound a lot like those of the guys who did just that.