December 8, 2011 is a day that will always live in infamy for fans of the Los Angeles Lakers. On that day, then-NBA Commissioner David Stern shocked the basketball world by vetoing the Lakers’ trade for Chris Paul.
The move not only cost the team one of the league’s best young point guards, it also alienated Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol, both of whom were included in the deal. Odom refused to return to the team and Gasol never seemed the same after the fact.
Before that moment, the Lakers were the league’s most popular and glamorous franchise. After that moment, the franchise began a slow, steep descent. A five year stretch where it seemed like every move
they made backfired and utter futility set in.
With basketball operations in the hands of Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak, the situation seemed hopeless. Fans are smart and knowledgeable, and they knew Buss and Kupchak could not lead the Lakers back to prominence. The team set records for fewest franchise wins in a season, and they were so rudderless and awful that top free agents would not even meet with the front office.
It took a bold move to shake things up, and to her credit, team owner Jeanie Buss had the courage to make the difficult decision mid-season to fire her brother Jim and loyal general manager Kupchak. In her brother’s place she hired the beloved Magic Johnson, and he hired the shrewd Rob Pelinka to replace Kupchak. With Johnson and Pelinka at the helm, it appears that at long last the tide has turned for the Lakers.
In the world of sports, as in life itself. the line between reality and perception is often blurred to the point that perception becomes reality. The perception is that Johnson and Pelinka have the goods and the charisma to make the Lakers relevant again – not only relevant, but a destination, a place that top stars will want to play. They have brought back the fun, the pizazz, and the confidence.
The Lakers will soon debut a beautiful new state-of- the-art training facility. For the first time in a long time, the turmoil in the Buss family is over, with the popular Jeanie Buss in firm control of the team which is what everyone wanted.
They feature a hot young coach in Luke Walton. They have a bevy of young talent that is improving. Top stars like Paul George seem to be intrigued by what the Lakers are doing. The team even gained a bit of confidence late in the season when they went on a five game winning streak for the first time in years.
Yet, all of this positive momentum could have been derailed had the Lakers lost their top draft choice in this weeks’ NBA lottery.
At risk was not only a top three pick in this summer’s draft, which is loaded with talent, but it would have cost the team its number one selection in the 2019 draft as well. Had they lost these picks, the team would have retained its first round position next year but that would have made it much more difficult to improve quickly, and the team may have ultimately decided to try and tank one more year.
With so much at stake, it seemed like everyone in Los Angeles was on edge as lottery day approached, and on Tuesday, the tension was palpable. Although Johnson and Pelinka put on a brave public face and said the team would be fine either way, no one was buying it.
The lottery is based entirely on luck, but somehow, someway, Lakers fans expected Magic Johnson to pull it off though the odds favored the team losing the choice. Again, perception is reality. In the end, it would have been great had the team secured the third selection, but when the ping pong balls stopped bouncing, they were awarded the second overall selection for the third year in a row to the surprise and delight of the Lakers universe.
The franchise is now in a very enviable position. This draft is believed to feature the deepest talent of the past decade, and the Lakers are going to end up with a fabulous young player.
The Boston Celtics, who pick first, seem likely to select Markelle Fultz. In this case, the Lakers will get to choose between a number of outstanding options including: point guard Lonzo Ball of UCLA, who may be the best playmaking guard to come out of the college ranks in years; De’Aaron Fox of the Kentucky Wildcats, a point guard with blazing Russell Westbrook-type speed and strong defensive skills; and Josh Jackson of the University of Kansas, a super-athletic swingman who has potential to be the great perimeter defender the Lakers so badly need.
A case could be made for choosing any of these three great young players. The Lakers now have a full month to work out each prospect twice, conduct interviews, and make the choice that is the best fit. The point is, no matter who they select, it will be an exciting addition to the current young core of Brandon Ingram, D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, Jr., and Ivica Zubac.
For the sake of argument, let’s say the Lakers end up with Ball. The team has many needs, but at the top of the list is an effective floor leader at point guard who runs the offense with confidence and charisma and creates easier baskets for his teammates. The Lakers have not had a transcendent point guard since Magic Johnson himself in the 1980s, which was long ago.
Ball would bring a spotlight and buzz to the Lakers that they currently lack, as he is, for reasons related and unrelated to basketball, the most talked about collegiate player in a long time.
If Ball can do for the Lakers what he did for UCLA this past season, it could create the closest thing
to the Showtime Lakers that the franchise has seen since that era. That fact will not be lost on Johnson, who should still give careful consideration to Fox and Jackson. The workouts and interviews this next month will be key.
With the number two pick, the Lakers have tremendous flexibility whether they choose to keep it or trade. They could also trade another young asset or two for a superstar player they covet and/or to unload either the Timofey Mozgov or Luol Deng contracts to create cap space for next summer.
A year from now, the Lakers figure to become major participants in the free agency market when players such as Russell Westbrook and Paul George will be available to change teams.
The cloud has been lifted. The future suddenly seems promising. The excitement has returned. It is enough to make even the most hardened Laker critic begin to believe that before long, Johnson and Pelinka will pull off their goal of making the Lakers a legitimate contender again. If perception is reality, the tide has turned and there are brighter purple and gold days ahead.