Rewind a little less than a year. It’s May 2017 and newly minted President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson is talking about what the team’s plans will be in the upcoming summer. The free agent market is going to be stacked — Durant, LeBron, Curry, and others — and the Lakers have the ability to carve out some space to chase one of them.
So, it’s time to make a splash, right? Magic and his GM Rob Pelinka are going to throw on the charm that their predecessors lacked, get one of these guys in the room, and then close the deal, yes? As I am fond of saying, nah. Instead, Magic came out and said the team preferred to look at 2018 for free agency and would rollover their cap space to that (now, this) summer.
Fast forward back to today.
It’s two days before the trade deadline and the Lakers have long been rumored to be exploring options to clear even more salary cap space in an effort to do exactly what Magic said they would: be a player in the 2018 summer market. They’ve surely been working the phones, with Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson being the most likely targets to move. So, we should expect a deal, right?
*extreme Lee Corso voice* Not so fast my friend.
As the Los Angeles Lakers become more realistic about the franchise’s chances of snaring superstars in the free-agent class of 2018, the front office is increasingly looking through a longer lens in its team building process, league sources told ESPN.
The Lakers aren’t abandoning a summer pursuit of stars, but rather they are recalibrating their focus on a 2019 class that could include San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, Golden State’s Klay Thompson and Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, league sources told ESPN.
Pushing back a year on big-game hunting in free agency could serve two purposes: It could alleviate the urgency to unload contracts at Thursday’s trade deadline and around the June NBA draft that could require the Lakers to attach future draft assets as incentives, and it could allow the Lakers’ talented young core — including Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart — to further develop and become more attractive for veteran stars to join.
Well, then. Let’s unpack this a bit.
First, as we told you Monday, we’re of the belief the Lakers should not be in a rush to make a trade before Thursday. The Lakers have specific goals in mind when making trades — clearing cap space and an accumulation of assets/draft picks that can help as building blocks or pieces for future deals. The likelihood of accomplishing both those goals in any given deal before Thursday are slimming by the hour and this FO should be smart enough to see that; the offers they’re getting are the direct proof.
Beyond that, though, right at the top of the Woj/Ramona piece is the other — and maybe most important — piece of this: the Lakers seem to be getting the feeling the stars they want either aren’t coming (LeBron/George) or are now less desirable (Cousins, due to injury). And maybe they should have been thinking this way the entire time, but that’s a different story.
In any event, here we are.
The critical side of me should point out that the Lakers (i.e. Magic and Pelinka) have done a fairly poor job of managing the narrative around their plan to build a winner since (nearly) the moment they were hired. They’ve gone from preaching patience to talking about focusing on 2018 to making a salary dump trade (which was greased by using a former #2 overall pick) to saying they wouldn’t have made that trade if they weren’t confident they could spend the money to backing off that and talking about how there’s more ways to use cap space than signing FA’s to recalibrating their focus on the 2019 FA class.
Those are dramatic shifts in language and they are showing their green-ness in their positions by having to walk back statements and pivot publicly in the manner they have been over this 10 month span. They deserve criticism and the hope would be they’ll be more prudent in the future (though, you know, I doubt that will be the case).
In saying all that, though, actions speak louder than words and this is an opportunity for this front office to actually get some good things done. The Lakers are slated to have $35 million in cap space this summer after Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope come off the books. Pelinka was not wrong when he said there’s more ways to use cap space than just on free agents and the Woj/Ramona report states that “if the Lakers sit out free agency this summer, they’ll try to use their salary cap space to accommodate teams looking to dump bad contracts — and willing to send draft picks to sweeten the deal.”
This is smart! More of this, please! The Lakers need to understand they are still in asset accumulation mode, not one-piece-away mode. Of course they should be exploring options to land the big fish, but that should never mean they remove other poles from the lake trying to grab the smaller ones which allow you to sustain organizational growth towards becoming a winner.
If this report means they’re closer to understanding this, great. I think it’s fair to wonder if circumstances forced their hand or not and, if that is the case, I can understand a certain amount of fretting or a continued level of skepticism around this front office. I get it, I do.
But, in the end, the Lakers must continue to look at the long game. They have a team of young players, several of whom are showing they can be good to very good to great(?) in this league. Developing them takes time and nurturing; it takes an investment in their future.
I understand many fans are out of patience and that the organization likely has little left too. But any lack of patience must be balanced against making smart decisions which actually enforce positive steps forward, lest you want to make the types of mistakes which only end up hurting you in the long run. My hope is the top decision makers of the Lakers know this better than anyone.