The NBA All-Stars descended upon Los Angeles this season and put on a show, but neither the Lakers nor the Clippers were represented. It was a strange occurrence, particularly for the Lakers, who are used to having the league’s best on their roster.
This begs the question: where will the Lakers’ next star come from? The team has been mired in a rebuild that has dragged on for years, and with Kobe Bryant happily retired, no one has emerged to step into the spotlight.
Yet the situation isn’t nearly as bleak as it appears at first glance. On the contrary, there are reasons to believe that an All-Star is just around the corner, or perhaps even on the team already.
Under the guidance of president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka, the organization has made some difficult decisions in order to clear a mountain of salary cap space.
They used talented young guard D’Angelo Russell as trade bait to get the Brooklyn Nets to absorb the vile contract of Timofey Mozgov last summer, erasing one of the sins of the past regime.
Then at this season’s trade deadline, the Lakers sent productive reserves Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for a struggling Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye, and a first-round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
Since both Frye and Thomas were on expiring contracts, the move has cleared the way for the Lakers to have enough salary cap space to sign not one but two max-level free agents.
Johnson and Pelinka will spend the summer hunting whales, and should they secure the likes of LeBron James, Paul George, or a (hopefully) recovered DeMarcus Cousins, then the city’s All-Star drought would surely be over.
In fact, should the Lakers get there way, the team would vault from the lottery into contention in a single, efficient offseason. As enticing as such a scenario sounds, one has to wonder how realistic it is.
After all, Cousins is recovering from a torn Achilles, making his future murky at best. That leaves James and George as the only true stars available, and convincing either to leave their incumbent teams to join forces in Los Angeles won’t be easy.
There are so many variable and all it takes is one thing to not break the Lakers’ way for it all to fall to pieces. Still, even if the Lakers don’t land the big fish, they are set up well for the future.
When 2017 second overall pick Lonzo Ball took the floor this season, he showed flashes of why much was expected of him heading into the draft. Ball’s defense was much better than anticipated, and his ability to grab and go on the defensive glass proved to be essential for a Lakers team that hopes to emulate the glory days of Showtime.
Likewise, fellow rookies Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart were revelations. With averages of 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 36.6 percent from deep, Kuzma was arguably the steal of last summer’s draft.
His offensive versatility fits the modern NBA perfectly, and while his defense has been called out from time to time, the skill set and desire is there for Kuzma to make an impact on that end as well.
Hart, meanwhile, had a strong close to the season after returning from a broken bone in his left hand. While Hart’s shooting may inevitably regress to the mean, his defensive tenacity is consistent, and he has a knack for making good things happen when he’s on the floor.
With productive young players locked into ultra-cheap rookie contracts, the Lakers are in good shape moving forward to be ready to pounce when a star does become available.
That effort will get easier if one of the players currently on the roster blossoms into a star, and it would appear that Brandon Ingram has the best chance at doing that.
Ludicrously long-limbed, Ingram spent most of the season getting to the rim nearly at will and has even spent a solid chunk of time filling in at point guard for the injured Ball. He has plenty to work on still, but the growth he has shown has many optimistic about the future.
The Lakers will do what they can to add a top free agent this summer, one that can represent their team in next year’s All-Star Game. But should they fail in free agency, there is still hope that the team is on the right path to move back up the NBA mountain.
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