After their 108-94 loss to the Charlotte Hornets on January 5, the Lakers had reached their lowest point of the 2017-18 season. Not only was it the team’s ninth consecutive loss but they were 16 games under .500 but a stretch of 15 of 21 road games was three weeks away.
Since then, the team has won 8 of 12 games, including six straight at home, and they’ve done it without Lonzo Ball in the lineup for the last eight, due to a sprained MCL. Their defense, which had dropped off significantly from where it was at the beginning of the season, was beginning to look good again. Brook Lopez was starting to knock down the wide-open three-pointers he was missing, Julius Randle was making the most of his return to the starting lineup, and Jordan Clarkson was playing the best basketball of his career.
But just when it looked like everything was beginning to go their way on the court, three significant things happened in the NBA that might force them to scrap whatever plans they had for this summer and come up with a new strategy.
Every team in the league would love to sign LeBron James this summer. Whichever team LeBron decides he wants to play for in 2018-19 will move whatever the necessary pieces are to make it happen. If we’re to believe LeBron’s agent, Rich Paul, that winning is the most important thing to his client, then the Lakers only viable path to signing LeBron would be to pair him with one of the other prime free agents to make this current youth-filled Lakers squad an immediate contender.
Once you get past LeBron, the next best free agents this summer are Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, Chris Paul and Isaiah Thomas. We can cross Chris Paul off the list immediately because he didn’t postpone cashing in on one last big contract at 32-years-old only to flee Houston after just one season. We can also cross Thomas off the list because If LeBron wants to play with him then he could just stay in Cleveland. That leaves two names: George and Cousins.
And that’s where things start to get real murky for the Lakers.
On January 10, the Oklahoma City Thunder lost their third straight game to fall to 22-20 on the season. They were beginning to look like the best they could hope for was the 7th or 8th-seed in the Western Conference and a first-round playoff exit, courtesy of either the Golden St. Warriors or Houston Rockets. Except the Thunder went on to win their next eight games before losing to the Washington Wizards on Tuesday, including a 148-124 victory in Cleveland against LeBron’s Cavs.
Dreams of seeing the Lakers pair LeBron with Paul George are beginning to look less and less likely with each game the Thunder plays. Even with Andre Roberson out for the season because of a ruptured patella tendon, George is clearly warming to the franchise and new teammate Russell Westbrook. After George was initially snubbed from this year’s Western Conference All-Star team, the league’s reigning MVP told reporters how unhappy he was about it. In response, here’s what George told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols on January 24 about Russ having his back (courtesy of ESPN’s Royce Young):
“Russ is the reason why this decision is becoming even more easier to make, is the character Russ [has]. A stand up guy, and he has his teammate’s back. We were actually joking before he went up there and I’m like ‘Nah, Russ, man, just let it go, let it go Russ, it is what it is. I wasn’t picked’ and he was like ‘Nah, man, P that’s messed up. I’m gonna tell them something about that.’ It was awesome for a teammate to have your back and to stand up. And to be honest, he should be a starter. He’s been the MVP, been the best player at his position. He should’ve been a starter. But that’s another story. But the fact Russ had my back, that’s my guy forever, and it’s more apparent what this decision needs to be made when it comes down to it.”
Things haven’t gotten better for the Lakers free agency hopes since then. Two days after George said those nice things about Westbrook to Nichols, Boogie’s season came to an abrupt end when he tore his Achilles tendon in a win over the Houston Rockets. And while Cousins, like Paul George, was finally beginning to look comfortable playing in New Orleans, there were other factors in play that would have made a LeBron/Boogie pairing in L.A. much more realistic than a Paul George/LeBron James one.
For starters, Cousins has yet to participate in a playoff game in seven NBA seasons. The chance to play with LeBron for the remainder of his prime, and to do it in L.A., might have been too much for him to pass up. In addition to that, the Pelicans cap situation is beyond awful after having given out too many terrible contracts with too many years still left on them. There was always a decent chance that ownership, in the aftermath of giving Jrue Holiday a five-year, $126 million extension last summer, might have had a limit to what they were willing to spend to keep Boogie in Louisiana.
You can make the case that Boogie’s injury has made him more attainable but that’s not the type of injury you want to take that type of risk with, especially with someone 6-foot-11 and 270 pounds. At least not until seeing how he comes back from the injury..
As if the week wasn’t bad enough for the Lakers free agent dreams, three days after the Boogie injury, the Los Angeles Clippers traded Blake Griffin to the Detroit Pistons for a protected first round pick, Tobias Harris Boban Marjanovic and the expiring contract of Avery Bradley. The Clippers, with Jerry West now in their front office, have decided that they want to be in the mix for this summer’s free agents as well. Even if the Lakers are arguably a more attractive free agent destination because of the talent that’s already in place, they not only have have more competition, but one that can offer free agents the same amenities of the city the Lakers could. And while many of today’s players might not know who Jerry West is, LeBron and Paul George certainly do.
The ideal scenario for the Lakers next summer would have been similar to the one the Houston Rockets pulled last year with Chris Paul. Have George tell OKC that either they trade him to the Lakers and get something in return for him, or he’d opt out and join them as a free agent and they’d be left empty-handed. As a result of Paul’s ultimatum, the Clippers were got some nice assets, the Rockets were able to get their guy, and Paul was able to take his Bird Rights with him to Houston so that he could make up the money he lost out on next year.
If George were to do this with the Lakers, he would opt in to a contract that pays him $20.7 million next season, about $10 million less than he would get if he signed with the Lakers as a free agent. It would give the Lakers a strong possibility to retain either Jordan Clarkson or Julius Randle (with the other likely headed to OKC) and it would give George, who turns 28 in May, the chance to get thr type of max extension that only a team with his Bird Rights could offer. As has been noted numerous times elsewhere, Randle and George are both clients of agent Aaron Mintz.
The Thunder are currently the 5th-seed, just a hair behind the Minnesota Timberwolves and within striking distance of the San Antonio Spurs for third. Finish fourth or fifth and you’re getting bounced by the Warriors in the second round. Finish third and you’ve got a shot at beating the Rockets in the Conference Semifinals before a date with the Warriors in the Conference Finals. Would just making it to the Western Conference Finals be enough to keep George in Oklahoma City? I would give it a seven on a scale of 1-10. Take the Warriors to a Game 6 or a Game 7 and I’d push that up to an eight or nine, respectively. But lose in the first or second round, or get swept by the Warriors in any round and I’d give it a three.
So that’s where the Lakers currently reside in terms of their hopes for signing two max free agents next summer. The list of guys they were hoping to sign is getting shorter, the plausible scenarios are looking less realistic, and the competition is getting larger and stronger.
The best thing the franchise could do right now is continue winning games and proving to the league that they’ve turned the ship around and they’re a team that’s going places. There’s no underestimating the importance of every win. Free agents don’t care that they’ve lost three overtime games to the two best teams in the league. They just see two more games in the loss column. It might not seem like much but a 38-44 record looks a lot better than a 33-49 one. With no first round pick and no incentive to lose, we’ll finally have an honest gauge for judging their standing in the league by season’s end. And so will the Free Agent Class of 2018.