The year is 2018 and the Lakers are coming for your stars. The plan has been in place for some time, but was ramped up nearly a year ago when Magic Johnson Rob Pelinka went on the record only 4 months after taking over as faces of the front office and spelled it out.
Move after move was made only, seemingly, to advance towards this goal. Trade D’Angelo Russell to get out of Timofey Mozgov’s contract. Shed Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance for expiring contracts (not to mention a 1st round pick that could be used on a player or as sweetner in a future trade) to open up more cap space. There was even a report that the Lakers could have agreed to contract extension with Julius Randle before this season, but balked, at least partially, because they did not want to tie up cap the space before this summer.
All these deals were made (or, not made) with this summer’s FA crop in the front-office’s cross hairs. And as we inch closer to July and watch potential targets’ playoff hopes dashed (wut up, playoff-P), fans’ focus is only intensifying on what can be impact summer.
As all that happens, though, I’m also reminded of past failures using this exact strategy. We don’t need to go over the list of names now playing on other teams, only that they’re not currently playing for the Lakers. Whether we want to view that as a blessing or not (hello there, Carmelo Anthony and LaMarcus Aldridge) isn’t as relevant to me as the fact that we as fans should be all too familiar with how fickle free agency can be.
I understand that arguments can be made that this year feels different. And, in many ways, I agree with that sentiment. The simple presence of young players who have shown real potential is a huge thing that can serve as a red carpet for any A-list free agent. The shift from a Jim Buss led front office to a Magic Johnson led one is ridiculous even if only from the standpoint of cachet and how he relates to the people he’ll be pitching (and that’s not the only standpoint).
Still, though, I hope the Lakers understand that as much as they itch to get in the room with the LeBron and Paul George’s of the world, they must still maintain focus on the things they can actually control. Namely, the players who are currently on their team.
These Lakers, the Magic Johnson led Lakers, should know better than anyone about the value of internal development and homegrown talent as the basis for a championship roster.
Magic was drafted to the Lakers. As was James Worthy. AC Green and Michael Cooper, too. Byron Scott’s rights were acquired after he was drafted, but before he ever played a minute for the San Diego Clippers, in exchange for Norm Nixon (who was also a Lakers draftee). Kurt Rambis’ path to the Lakers was more unique (he was drafted by the Knicks, waived, played in Greece for a year, signed again by the Knicks, only to never play for them and then sign with the Lakers as a free agent).
Besides Kareem — who was obviously a cornerstone and superstar player — the above players make up the core of the Showtime Lakers. Of course there were supplementary talents who were important and not developed within the Lakers organization. McAdoo, Wilkes, Mychal Thompson, etc, etc. But the core of those teams were homegrown players.
Before we go too far down this path, I want to make clear I am not comparing Lonzo, Ingram, Kuzma, Hart, and Randle to the aforementioned Showtime crew. Not only are the current Lakers too young to project that type of greatness onto them, the reputations of those 80’s players were cemented by big game performances and championships. This group has not had those same opportunities to prove their mettle or build legacies.
Still, though, the Lakers need to look at them as the cornerstone players of their next great team because, in reality, they’re the only guys they currently have. And investing as heavily in their development as they can should be the chief goal. Because that’s what the Lakers actually can control.
Make no mistake, the Lakers should be actively looking to add talent by any means they can. If they can get meetings with LeBron and George, by all means give them the hard sell. Kawhi Leonard might be available in a trade? Create and keep an open line of dialogue with the Spurs. You do not win in this league without elite talent and these guys are some of the best (if not the best) players in the world. Of course you chase them if you’re able.
But the Lakers’ top goal should be trying to turn their current players into facsimiles of those guys; to develop their own players, with their exceptionally high ceilings, into the league’s next great players. Because if they can do that, they’ll be well on their way towards what their ultimate goal is. And no one should know that better than the guy in charge right now.