The Los Angeles Lakers have been drowning in a sea of negative press over the last few months with a seemingly endless barrage of stories.
From the Anthony Davis trade deadline debacle to former president of basketball operations Magic Johnson going scorched earth on First Take and Baxter Holmes’ infamous “Lakers 2.0” piece, Los Angeles has been reeling.
While most if not all of these wounds are — at least in some way — self-inflicted, the sentiment from pundits around the league is that their fate has been sealed and that free agents won’t be willing to take their money this summer.
At least, that’s the primary narrative that has been spun thus far.
Through all of it, the Lakers have remained silent — save for general manager Rob Pelinka’s comments during head coach Frank Vogel’s introductory press conference. The team seems determined to keep their heads down and push forward hoping that eventually, the storm will pass. Owner Jeanie Buss has largely been out of sight, leaving others to write the story for the Lakers while missing the opportunity to assert her authority.
However, all of this doesn’t mean that the team’s summer — or future — are doomed. On the contrary, while all of this noise around the organization will play a role, it doesn’t change the fact that the Lakers have some very real advantages that are being overlooked heading into what promises to be an eventful offseason.
To start, the Lakers will have enough cap room to pursue max-level free agents like Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker, and others. Landing any one of them — particularly Leonard — would instantly thrust the Lakers back into the hunt in the Western Conference. Perhaps free agents will be scared off by the team’s recent challenges, but perhaps not. Professional athletes and agents don’t always see a situation from the same perspective and the chance to play in Los Angeles for the Lakers may still hold some appeal.
James’ presence, of course, is another factor. The spotlight on the Lakers grew brighter with his arrival, but the current crop of free agents are all from the younger generation that came up watching James dominate the league. They developed their games as he became the superstar of the next generation and as such, his voice will be a powerful one in pitch meetings.
Even at 34 years old, James is still a force on the court. His midseason groin injury played a role in flipping the team’s narrative towards the negative side, but his production when healthy was right in line with most of his career numbers. James’ impact may even be understated at this point due to the failures of the 2018-19 NBA season and the fear of Father Time’s impact, but the fact remains that a team with James on their roster still has to be considered a real threat on a nightly basis.
Add a piece here and there to the might that James brings and the Lakers are back in business. That’s something that should matter to players who find themselves with the opportunity to join the Lakers.
That said, free agency isn’t the only path that the Lakers can take to make a leap for the 2019-20 season. Their young core of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart still offers plenty of promise, and they had the good fortune to move up to the No. 4 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Like James, the impact of the injury bug put a damper on the excitement surrounding the young Lakers, but each one showed flashes of brilliance during the season that made it clear there is serious potential waiting to be unlocked.
As the Lakers look to add talent around James, it’s not out of the question for improvement to come from the organic growth of their young players. Before being sidelined due to injury, both Ball and Ingram were playing the best basketball of their careers while Kuzma has proven himself to be a consistent scoring threat. Assuming they are healthy, all three could become excellent complimentary pieces to James with enough upside to allow the Lakers to chart a course for success after he has sailed off into the sunset — as would whoever the Lakers select with this year’s lottery pick.
Of course, it’s also entirely possible — and perhaps even probable — that the Lakers will flip some or all of their future assets for a win-now piece. Davis trade rumors aren’t going away anytime soon and other names — like Bradley Beal — continue to drive speculation as the Lakers hope to build a winner around James.
If they are able to strike a deal for an All-Star player while still maintaining cap space for a max-level free agent (tricky under the cap, but not impossible), the Lakers could find themselves right back in the championship hunt, much to the dismay of those who have enjoyed their recent struggles.
Organizationally, the Lakers have a lot of work to do in order to right the ship, but this summer will still provide real opportunities for the team to make a big leap forward next season.