What was shaping to be a sleepy NBA trade deadline quickly gained steam Thursday morning, with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers at the center of the activity. The end result was the Lakers adding Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and a first-round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.
But, more importantly for the Lakers, it puts them in a greater position of strength in terms of free agency this summer and next year’s class.
“This is what I came here to do, was to create flexibility for our organization so that one day we can have a superstar or two come to this organization with our incredible young talent that we have,” Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson said.
“I don’t want to stay where we are. I don’t want to be on the outside of the playoffs, looking in. We have to take another step. This move allows us to position ourselves to hopefully take that next step, which is get into the playoffs and hopefully be one of the best teams in the West and in basketball. It’s not just the money, it’s also that draft pick.”
The Lakers’ previously-owned first-round pick in the 2018 Draft now belongs to either the Philadelphia 76ers, or Boston Celtics if it falls between Nos. 2 and 5.
While L.A. has now added what will be a late first-round pick this year, the focus of headlines will be on the team’s nearly $47 million in projected salary cap space this summer. It can increase to $69 million if Julius Randle is not re-signed and Luol Deng’s contract is stretched.
“I think we, probably more than any organization in the NBA right now, have the healthiest salary structure, the healthiest flexibility,” Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said.
“If you look at the pathway to the great, great teams and success in the NBA, most of the time it’s through a road where a team has great flexibility and draft assets to seize opportunities to get the elite players in the game.
“If you look at the Boston Celtics, they had flexibility to take advantage of a very unique situation that happened in the offseason. They were in position to take advantage of an unexpected, unique opportunity that has led them to be an elite team. We now are in that position.”
For as optimistic and encouraged as the Lakers front office feels, trading Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. pulled at heartstrings. “We gave up two outstanding players but also two outstanding men. They’ve been really wonderful,” Johnson said.
“Jordan, I love him because everything that we asked him to do to get better, trim body fat down, he’s been able to do. He was having an outstanding season for us. And then Larry is just Larry. He’s provided so many thrills for our fans in terms of his dunks, blocked shots, and we also value the relationship that we had with Larry. Both him and Jordan.
“It’s a great day and a bittersweet day. Rob and I like these two guys a lot. Jeanie, it was tough for her. Jeanie loves her Lakers, and she’s become fond of all the guys. She’s just like her father. Never wants to trade any of her guys because they’re more to her than just players. But she got on board and we had a great conference.”
Whether shedding Clarkson’s salary will pay off in terms of free agency may not become known until next summer. But at minimum, the Lakers took a sizable step toward luring the superstar that’s eluded the franchise in recent years.
“We know what we’re working toward. We have a strategy, just like we had a strategy here at the trade deadline. Rob executed it in a flawless manner,” Johnson said.
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