For the first time in a long time, things are going the Lakers way. It’s been a long, sometimes frustrating rebuild; one that was forced upon the franchise thanks to years of untimely injuries and free agency failures.
Last February, a change was finally made as Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak, the team’s architects during this tumultuous time, were let go. Their decision to sign aging veterans Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng last summer appeared to be the final straw, and Jeanie Buss brought in Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka to replace them.
Since then, it has been surprisingly smooth sailing for the Lakers.
Johnson swung his first major deal after only days on the job, trading capable veteran Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Corey Brewer and a first round pick. During the draft, that pick would be traded down to get two selections, used on Josh Hart and Thomas Bryant.
Williams is undeniably talented, but Hart and Bryant both fit the style of basketball the Lakers hope to play: space the floor, run like hell, and play tough, switchy defense.
For lack of a better term, it’s Showtime for the modern era.
Johnson and Pelinka followed up the Williams trade by again dealing with the Rockets and landing point guard Tyler Ennis, who played the best basketball of his young career over the home stretch of the season.
After kicking the tires on veterans like Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose, the Lakers ultimately brought back Ennis on a team-friendly contract for two years at the minimum with the second year being a team option.
It’s not a home run, but given the team’s self-imposed restriction of signing only one-year deals this summer in order to preserve 2018 cap space, seeing if Ennis can duplicate the success he had in Los Angeles last season is a low-risk and worthwhile endeavor.
Prior to the draft, Johnson and Pelinka made a somewhat controversial trade, shipping D’Angelo Russell and Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Brook Lopez and the 27th pick.
The Lakers had reportedly shopped Russell around, hoping to find another lottery pick, which they may or may not have been planning to use in a trade for Indiana Pacers forward Paul George. Regardless, they didn’t find a deal they liked and instead used the talented young guard to erase one of the sins of the previous regime by shedding Mozgov’s massive contract.
That said, it wasn’t simply a salary dump, as Lopez is a truly gifted center who developed a three-point shot last season. In fact, he led all NBA centers in made threes and hit just one less than Russell did. The long-armed Lopez is also a deterrent at the rim, which should give the Lakers much-needed floor spacing offensively and a stingier defense.
Last season, Lopez was unquestionably a better player than Russell, though at 29 years old compared to Russell’s 21 that may not be the case much longer, especially as the league shifts away from bigs who lack the mobility to switch defensively.
Most who rallied against the trade were upset that Russell’s value was diminished by attaching him to Mozgov, but the ultimate success or failure of the deal will come down to what the Lakers are able to do with the cap space that they created next summer.
Russell was the silver lining to a difficult 2014-2015 season and the attachment to him is understandable, but if the Lakers land a pair of stars like Paul George and LeBron James all will be forgiven.
Of course, it also can’t be overstated how fortunate it was that the Lakers retained their top-three protected pick in the draft lottery. Despite having only a 46.9 percent chance of keeping their selection, the Basketball Gods smiled upon Los Angeles once again, allowing them to walk away with the second overall pick for the third season in a row.
Due to this, the Lakers not only kept this year’s pick but they also get their 2019 first round selection back from the Orlando Magic, who instead get two second rounders as long-delayed payment for the Dwight Howard trade.
The 2017 pick allowed the Lakers to grab hometown kid Lonzo Ball, who wowed crowds at the Las Vegas Summer League en route to winning the MVP award. He recorded the first triple double in Summer League history, then broke his own record by doing it again in what was an incredible opening act for a talented young player.
Summer League may not be a reliable indicator of NBA success, but none of the Lakers recent high draft picks — Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, or Brandon Ingram — dazzled in the desert as a rookie the way that Ball did.
As minds were blown watching Ball whip pinpoint-accurate passes, the Nets’ 27th pick was somewhat surprisingly used on Kyle Kuzma, who spent his summer proving doubters wrong. He shot an incredible 48 percent from three, which likely isn’t sustainable, but beyond that, Kuzma was phenomenal running the floor and had instant chemistry with Ball.
On multiple occasions, Kuzma took off down court like a wide receiver, turning just in time to watch a long bomb from Ball float just out of reach of his defender and find Kuzma in stride for the easy bucket. If the duo keeps this up, the Rams are going to come calling at some point.
Kuzma was also very impressive defensively, where he willingly switched onto smaller players, got down low into his stance, and challenged them to beat him off the dribble. He couldn’t always stick with his man but more often than not he made life hell on the opposing guard who had been expecting an easy meal. It’s this, along with his offensive barrage, that made Kuzma an easy selection for the MVP award in the championship game.
As NBA defenses shift away from mammoths like Lopez, they move towards quick, agile bigs like Kuzma, and his success has the added benefit of making the Russell trade a bit more tolerable, even though the argument could be made that Kuzma still would have been there for the Lakers to select at 28.
Of course, one also can’t overlook Ingram. While he only played one game this summer due to injury, Ingram looked to be in a class all his own. He beat his man one-on-one, splashed home jumpers, and was a terror on the defensive end. The usually quiet Ingram even stepped up as a vocal leader. His lone performance showcased everything one would hope to see from a returning second overall pick and provided a lot of hope for a bright future.
The Lakers saw their success continue in free agency despite Johnson and Pelinka’s determination to lay low. They were content to remain patient and keep the powder dry for 2018, but managed to make a splash anyway.
They declined the second-year option on the contract of reserve center Tarik Black, parting ways with the bouncy bruiser in order to free up some extra room this year. The move was painful, but it proved to be prescient.
Just days later, the Boston Celtics traded guard Avery Bradley to the Detroit Pistons in order to make room for free agent Gordon Hayward. In response, Detroit rescinded their qualifying offer to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, suddenly making him an unrestricted free agent who no one had expected to be available this summer.
Caldwell-Pope instantly became the most sought-after free agent on the market, and the Lakers, armed with extra cap space thanks to letting Black go, were in hot pursuit. Ultimately, the defensive dynamo chose to come to L.A. on a one-year deal worth $18 million, which allows him to chase a long-term deal next summer while the Lakers pursue star free agents.
His defensive talents, combined with his shooting and slashing ability, make him close to an ideal fit alongside Ball in Los Angeles’ backcourt.
With KCP in the fold, the Lakers now boast, on paper at least, their strongest starting five of the last few seasons. Johnson and Pelinka have managed to improve the team in the here-and-now while unapologetically focusing on the future.
It’s a difficult balance to strike, but if things continue to fall into place the way they did this summer then the Lakers won’t be a lower-tier team much longer.