The teardown and rebuild of the Los Angeles Lakers is nearly complete. By the end of the summer, the roster will be made up almost entirely of players brought in by president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka.
They envision a team that can play stingy, hard-nosed defense on one end and fast-break opponents to death on the other. It’s a modern take on Johnson’s Showtime-era squads of the 1980’s, which are revered as perhaps the greatest in the club’s history.
Those teams were mesmerizing in the way they translated the fast-paced, intoxicating allure of Hollywood to the hardwood.
Can Johnson, the Showtime maestro, and Pelinka, whose agency ties are as endless as Brandon Ingram’s arms, really bring back the glory days of the Lakers?
If they can’t, it certainly won’t be for lack of trying. Johnson and Pelinka have only been on the job for just over a year, but the changes they have made are massive, resulting in the Lakers having both a promising young core and the flexibility that comes with possessing more cap room than any team in the league.
The path traveled to get to this place has required sacrifices, some more painful than others.
Currently, only four players from Johnson’s and Pelinka’s predecessors, Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss, remain on the roster: Julius Randle, Ivica Zubac, Luol Deng, and Ingram, and they may not last long.
The club has not hidden their desire to move on from Deng’s weighty contract. Randle will hit restricted free agency when the clock strikes midnight on July 1. Zubac, after a down sophomore season, isn’t a lock to be back, and his $1.5 million salary for next season is not guaranteed.
Ingram, while possessing perhaps the most upside of anyone on the roster, will be highly sought-after in trade talks.
It wouldn’t be all that surprising if the Lakers exited the summer with no players left from the previous regime, with most having already been shipped out.
Players such as D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Lou Williams, all seen as key pieces at one point or another, are gone. Their departures were necessary in order to create the flexibility to further shape the roster as Johnson and Pelinka see fit.
New players have been brought in, with no major mistakes staining the ledger over the last year and a half, and a few surprising triumphs bolstering confidence in what was an unproven front office.
With a focus on finding two-way, versatile players, the Lakers selected Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, and Thomas Bryant late in the 2017 Draft. In Kuzma and Hart, they found multi-tool, smart players who can easily switch on defense while filling multiple roles on the offensive end.
Bryant, meanwhile, has the potential to both protect the rim on defense and stretch the floor on offense, something few true bigs can successfully pull off.
To top it all off, Johnson and Pelinka put their faith in Lonzo Ball with the second pick to set the pace. If this team is going to be molded into anything resembling Showtime, they needed a point guard who could channel the lightning-quick pace into a productive offense.
Now, with free agency about to begin, the Lakers will have the opportunity to finally finish rebuilding.
The summer is already heating up thanks to speculation that Kawhi Leonard wants out of San Antonio and that the Lakers are his preferred landing spot. If they can work out a trade with the Spurs to land Kawhi (easier said than done), he could prove to be the bait to lure LeBron James and perhaps Paul George as well.
The situation is fluid, but at the moment, it feels as though George, who wanted to be traded to the Lakers last summer, may actually be the long shot of the group of targets, because Oklahoma City and Russell Westbrook made a strong impression on him this year.
However, despite all the excitement that comes with the possibility of bringing stars back to Hollywood, Johnson and Pelinka need to tread carefully. The decisions made over the next few weeks will have major ramifications on the franchise’s future, for better or worse.
As starved for wins as the Lakers are, they would be remiss to undervalue what they have already built. In Ball, Ingram, Kuzma and Randle, they have an intriguing young core and sit in an enviable position with their salary cap. That’s not something that should be sacrificed haphazardly.
Chasing Leonard via trade would require parting with assets that the team suffered through lean years in order to acquire; treasures that must be valued as such. Even the signings of James or George as free agents comes with a cost.
Adding multiple stars could result in the Lakers being forced to watch Randle, arguably their best player this past season, walk away. It could also require the Lakers to have to pay another team with cap room to absorb the crushing contract of Deng, resulting in more assets being sacrificed in the quest for stars.
Superstars are a wonderful and necessary thing to have, but James will be 34 years old next season; Leonard has a mysterious injury that kept him away from the Spurs for almost the entire season; and George, though talented, is more Robin than Batman.
These things won’t prohibit Johnson and Pelinka from making a big move. After all, this is the summer they have been patiently waiting and sacrificing for. If the right move materializes they should be ready to pounce, and if not, be content in knowing that they have something brewing with the kids that has value in its own right.
So far, it appears that Johnson and Pelinka have read the market correctly. They won the trade that sent Clarkson and Nance to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and a first-round pick (which became Moritz Wagner). They opted not to trade free-agent-to-be Randle when their asking price wasn’t met. These are positive signs that the organization has a plan in place that they are executing.
Chasing stars, however, can be addicting, and teams can make moves that haunt them as a result (hello, Brooklyn Nets). At some point, the juice is not worth the squeeze, and it will be up to Johnson and Pelinka to successfully determine exactly where the line is.
All roads have led to this point. The Lakers are expected to bring in stars this summer. Johnson and Pelinka know it but so does the rest of the league, and they will use it for leverage against the Lakers.
The question is if the price of doing so becomes too high or the risk too great, will Johnson and Pelinka have the willpower to walk away? They’ve maintained they will.
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