There are a myriad of different strategies that can be used to build a contender in the NBA, but the bottom line is that it takes superstars to win championships. This is why the top priority on Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka’s massive summer To-Do list will be to find a way to bring a new star to Los Angeles, which is no small task.
Most of the chatter lately has swirled around Indiana Pacers forward Paul George, who grew up a Lakers fan in Palmdale and finds himself in the superstar discussion, though he isn’t on par with the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, or the rest of the demigods. Still, a player like George would put the Lakers back on the map and give them a piece to build around, one that could even attract other players to Los Angeles.
However, George is under contract in Indiana for at least one more season, which means that if Pelinka wants to add him sooner rather than later a trade will have to be made, and given the Lakers’ four-year playoff drought, there is some pressure to improve quickly.
From the Pacers side of things, team President Larry Bird just stepped down, paving the way for a rebuild that could involve trading away their star.
In any trade, Pelinka must weigh his options very carefully. George will almost certainly exercise his option to become a free agent in the summer of 2018, which means that trade for him now only guarantees one season in Los Angeles. He may state his desire to sign long-term, but until the ink is dry on a new deal, he has to be viewed as a potential flight risk in any trade discussions. The Lakers know far too well how damaging it can be to lose a star player to free agency.
Before any moves can be made, Pelinka must carefully assess the team’s players and make some difficult decisions about who to make available to the Pacers in trade talks, likely in addition to the Lakers’ 2017 draft pick if it lands in the top three. Essentially, he must figure out which young players have the ability to integrate into head coach Luke Walton’s system long-term and if they will be able to hit their ceilings as players.
After all, given the cheap rookie deals that the Lakers’ young talent are on, it may not make sense to trade them to Indiana if it’s believed that some of the pieces they are giving up in order to get George will eventually become All-Stars while making less money. If the Lakers want George it’s going to cost them, but figuring out which of the team’s young players to make available in a trade won’t be easy.
Of the current young core, it appears that only D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Ivica Zubac, and Brandon Ingram have ceilings that could lead to them being selected to an All-Star team, which means the Pacers would have the most interest in them. Mind you, that doesn’t mean it’s probable that they will become All-Stars in the future, just that they have the potential to reach that level someday, which could be appealing to a rebuilding Pacers squad.
For the time being, The least-likely to become a star is Randle, whose defensive struggles and inability to protect the rim limit his upside. When he’s hot, Randle presents an intriguing package of strength and speed while displaying the handles and passing ability of a guard, but unless he becomes deadly with his jumper and learns to be at least an average defender he isn’t likely to become to a perennial All-Star. If the Lakers decide to move one of their young players, Randle appears to be the most movable, especially since Larry Nance Jr. can easily slide into his starting role.
Unfortunately, Randle’s value is somewhat depressed due to him only having one year remaining on his rookie deal. He would be a restricted free agent next summer for any team trading for him so they would have a major advantage in keeping him. Some teams will likely be hesitant to fork over a fat new deal or extension, however-. While the Lakers may determine that Randle is the player they are most willing to move, the Pacers will likely want someone with more time left on a rookie contract and higher upside.
Unlike Randle, Ivica Zubac’s skill set and physical presence is a perfect fit for the modern NBA. He has the length needed to protect the rim, a soft touch around the basket, and the ability to step out and shoot jumpers all the way out to the corner three. However, Zubac only makes $1.3 million next season, making his contract a tough one to use for salary matching purposes, and he hasn’t done enough in the league to be the centerpiece in a trade for a player of George’s caliber. Not to mention the Pacers already are set at the center position with Myles Turner.
That leaves just Russell and Ingram remaining. Russell has accomplished more in his short time in the NBA and has a knack for hitting big shots, which could bring some excitement to Indiana. He isn’t the pass-first wunderkind that he was sold as coming out of college, but his diverse skill set still makes him an intriguing prospect with plenty of upside. He compares somewhat favorably to a young Mike Conley, which would put him in the All-Star discussion if he continues to develop, although off-court issues could scare the Pacers away.
Ingram, on the other hand, is probably the player that Indiana will ask for but also the one that the Lakers will be the most reluctant to part with. He may not have burst onto the scene this year as a rookie, but the lanky forward showed tremendous improvement throughout the season. His ability to attack the rim over the final weeks was especially impressive given his thin frame. If Ingram can get his jumper back on track he will be a heck of a player in the NBA, and he has drawn rave reviews about his work ethic. If it comes down to parting with Ingram or not getting George, the Lakers will have a very difficult decision to make.
Los Angeles needs a star, and the George rumors give some glimmer of hope, but even a deal for a star can be a bad one of the team gives up too much. If the Lakers don’t offer enough, the Pacers will find better offers elsewhere. Too much, and they run the risk of George bolting to a team ready to win in the summer of 2018.
It’s a tricky predicament that will certainly challenge Pelinka in his new role. If nothing else, it’s not going to be a dull summer in Los Angeles.