The Los Angeles Lakers’ experiment to surround LeBron James with ‘tough-minded’ playmakers failed in truly spectacular fashion. With a 37-45 record during the 2018-19 NBA season, the Lakers netted just two wins by adding James — something never thought possible before now.
Then, to add to it all, president of basketball operations Magic Johnson shocked basketball fans by stepping down from his position just hours before the team’s final game of the season against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Following that, the Lakers and head coach Luke Walton mutually agreed to part ways. Walton was almost immediately hired by the Sacramento Kings as their new head coach.
With the 2019 offseason underway, Los Angeles must figure out a way to put together a team actually capable of winning, and not just for the first three months. Here are the top priorities for the purple and gold laid out chronologically, and how they go from this failed Year 1 with James.
1. Rebuild the entire front office, but don’t just hire friends of the program
Owner Jeanie Buss has done a decent job running this team since taking control in 2017, but it’s now completely obvious that her first major hires, Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka, failed to do their jobs. With Johnson stepping down, it’s only right they part ways with Pelinka as well, giving the front office a complete reboot.
For now, it seems like Buss and the Lakers plan on sticking with Pelinka. And while this is a mistake, it’s not the end of the world. What’s imperative in this situation is that he be on a short leash. Any mistakes and he’s gone.
Should Pelinka remain, the rest of these priorities will be on his shoulders. However, should he move on from his position, Buss must look outside the Lakers family to make the next set of hires at general manager and president of basketball operations. If she doesn’t, it’s possible she sets the Lakers back for many seasons to come.
2. Conduct a real search to find Luke Walton’s replacement
Absolutely no one was shocked when the Lakers and Walton mutually agreed to part ways. Walton has already moved on, finding a home with the Kings, but the Lakers now have a major vacancy to fill.
Almost immediately after Walton left, it was announced by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that the team’s two main candidates were former Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue and Philadelphia 76ers assistant Monty Williams. It was then reported several days later that Miami Heat assistant Juwan Howard was the third candidate in the search.
What’s promising here is that the Lakers are looking at numerous candidates, choosing coaches that make the most basketball sense. If Pelinka is going to lead the coaching search the whole way, he must stick with this mindset.
3. Select a 3-and-D player in the 2019 NBA Draft
If the Lakers have done one thing right in the past few seasons, it’s drafting. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, Ivica Zubac, and Thomas Bryant were all selections from director of scouting Jesse Buss. Clearly, Buss knows what he’s doing and with a mid-level lottery pick at his disposal, he may find his way to another great prospect.
Let’s say the Lakers stay at No. 11 overall in the lottery. North Carolina’s Coby White, Kentucky’s PJ Washington, Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson, and possibly Vanderbilt’s Darius Garland are all slated to available at this time. All three are 38 percent or better three-point shooters. Johnson and Washington, in particular, are switchy, positionless players who have shown defensive prowess.
If the Lakers manage to luck their way into a non-Zion Williamson top-four pick, which they’ll have about a nine percent chance of doing, Duke’s RJ Barrett, Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver, Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke, and once again Garland are all great fits on the current roster.
4. Don’t overpay for Anthony Davis
In February, it seemed obvious for the Lakers to do whatever it took to get Davis on the roster. Today, with Jayson Tatum’s value as low as ever, the No. 1 pick still to be decided by the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery, and a lack of league-wide interest, Los Angeles simply doesn’t need to sell the farm.
If the season proved anything, it’s that Ingram and Ball are both on the verge of a real breakthrough and that basketball fans maybe overreacted to Tatum’s 2018 playoff run, seeing his efficiency and production dip significantly in 2019 while remaining a top option on the roster.
Trading Ball, Ingram, Hart, Kuzma, the top-11 pick, and maybe two more first round picks would certainly be enough to get the deal done. However, if the Celtics can’t do better than what’s left of Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and a couple of first round picks, there’s no need. The Lakers should offer Ball, Kuzma, Hart, two first round picks and nothing more.
If the person making this deal is Pelinka, he’ll have some work to do to regain some of the Lakers front office credibility — a task that may be well beyond his paygrade. If it’s not him, that may be the reset this organization needs to get the deal done.
Perhaps a bit of positive news is that former Cavaliers general manager David Griffin was hired to run the New Orleans Pelicans. Not only does Griffin have a great relationship with James, but he also has said on multiple occasions how highly he views Ingram.
5. Heavily recruit one of Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, or Kawhi Leonard to sign as a free agent
Yes, we’ve heard all the rumors that Irving doesn’t want to reunite with James, Thompson loves the Golden State Warriors, and Leonard wants no part of playing with James. But at the end of the day, this is all just media speculation. Nobody knows exactly what these players want, and it’s impossible to assume those things until free agency begins on July 1.
If the Lakers want to make this offseason truly meaningful, they must go after these big names. Irving, Walker, Thompson, and especially Leonard, are all ideal fits for the team the Lakers are trying to build.
However, the Lakers must avoid their common mistake of selling these players on ‘Lakers exceptionalism.’ Instead, they must focus on the basketball advantages that come with playing on this Lakers team: James and the young core.
If the Lakers do manage to swing a Davis trade and convince a Walker or Irving type point guard to sign, the Lakers begin to look like a title contender in a hurry.
In conjunction with this, the Lakers should still go after other major free agents. Jimmy Butler, although not a perfect fit, would still be a major win for this team. It’s not Irving/Leonard/Thompson or bust, there are other max options on the board.
6. Don’t give B-list free agents huge deals, and on the same token, don’t re-sign any of the current vets on the roster to anything more than the minimum
If one thing has been made clear in the last few seasons, it’s that the Lakers have a habit of making the same mistakes year in and year out. And while everything else being discussed on this list is in some shape or form out of their control, this most certainly isn’t.
If the Lakers sign Nikola Vucevic, Bojan Bogdanovic, DeAndre Jordan, or any others of that same tier to inflated contracts simply to get rid of money, they’ll repeat the exact same mistakes of the previous front office.
Rajon Rondo and JaVale McGee have also made it clear they want to return despite inconsistent and sometimes horrid play this season. That’s fine and it wouldn’t be the worst idea — as long as it’s for minimum deals. Anything more, and it’ll be an epic failure by whoever is running this team.