The NBA playoffs are in full swing but with no horse in the race, Los Angeles Lakers’ fans have naturally turned their attention to what the team can do to improve the roster this summer. It has become something of an annual ritual at this time of year for there to be wild speculation about who the Lakers will sign. This spring has been no exception.
If we believe the recent rumors, virtually every top player in the league is angling to join the Lakers next season. It is enough to drive even the most level-headed fan insane! Recent unsubstantiated reports would suggest that the team’s starting line-up in the fall could include LeBron James and Kevin Durant at forward, DeMarcus Cousins at center, and Jimmy Butler and DeMar DeRozan in the backcourt.
Of course, most of these names have been linked with the Lakers before, and it didn’t happen. For example, last summer there were reports that restricted free agents Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard were itching to go west. When July rolled around, however, they quickly signed max deals with their current teams frustrating Lakers’ followers and making the rumors seem like a cruel joke.
The Lakers will swing for the fences again, which they tried the last two summers without a shred of success. Whether they will be luckier this offseason remains to be seen, but at this point, there is some room for optimism. For one thing, Kobe Bryant and Byron Scott are gone.
While everyone admired and respected Bryant, no top free agent wanted to play with him at the end of his career after three injury-filled seasons. Nor did they want to endure, and be overshadowed by, the farewell tour that was so over-the- top as to render the actual games a mere afterthought.
Likewise, no top free agent could reasonably want to play for Scott. He was a talented player as a young man and had some initial success as a coach with the New Jersey Nets. Many years later, however, after unsuccessful stops in New Orleans and Cleveland, and leading the Lakers to their two worst seasons in franchise history, he did not resonate with the NBA culture today. Even if he knew what he was doing, which many have questioned, he was singularly unsuccessful getting any of the Lakers’ players to buy into his system the past two years.
Scott’s replacement is the newly hired Luke Walton. Walton is the same age as Pat Riley was when the latter was hired to coach the Lakers. Walton is unproven, and he may or may not turn out to be a great coach. But in a universe where perception is reality, nearly everyone perceives Walton as an up-and-coming superstar in the coaching ranks. Reportedly every team with a coaching vacancy wanted him, and he chose the Lakers without either party interviewing anyone else. This was perceived as a huge, splashy coup for the Lakers, and a public relations win for sure.
Walton brings a championship pedigree as a player and the aura and excitement of the Golden State Warriors, who at this moment are the envy of the league. He plans on playing a fast-paced brand of basketball, which, compared with the system in place for years now, will be a breath of fresh air for players and fans alike.
Walton, not Scott, will be sitting across the table from prominent free agents who are considering the Lakers this offseason. That has to increase the odds of success. Certainly, 25-year-old millionaire free agents are not going to bond with Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss, so if the Lakers’ brass is smart, they’ll let Walton do the talking.
Another plus is that the Lakers finally have a few attractive assets to showcase. This is what Kupchak refers to as the “core group” of young players the team has assembled. In truth, none of these players established himself as a surefire future star, but whether their value is exaggerated or not, there is a perception that this group has a bright future together and thus a free agent knows he is joining a team on the rise with a roster that may be intact for quite a while.
Free agency aside, for the first time in a while, the team may have sufficient assets to pull off a major trade. This will be especially true if they retain a top-three draft choice in the lottery later this month. Since Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram are thought to be certain future all-stars, a top two pick would be especially valuable.
That is not to say the Lakers would trade their top pick if they retain it. If they decide that Simmons and Ingram are too valuable to part with, a trade could still be made involving some combination of D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Larry Nance, Jr., Anthony Brown, and the 32nd pick in the draft this year which the Lakers possess. As Kupchak recently reiterated, no one on the roster is untouchable if the right deal comes along.
Finally, no NBA team has more money to spend on free agents than the Lakers this summer. In the world of professional sports, nothing resonates more with players than money. If the Lakers are willing to pay top dollar, or even overspend, it might wrestle free agents like Hassan Whiteside or Harrison Barnes away from their existing teams who will try to keep them but may have cap space constraints.
In the end, whether it is signing Walton, shedding Bryant and Scott, holding onto another top draft choice, or possessing some $60 million or more to spend, there is reason to believe this offseason will be a successful one. Will it be enough to make the team a contender next year? Probably not, but it should finally allow the team to start showing progress again after a steady and steep decline over the past five years.