With a new front office, the Los Angeles Lakers are ready to move past the trials of the last five years and forge a successful future which will hopefully include a return to competing at the highest level. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have said the right things, and they have the pedigree to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. They have been transparent in disclosing their plans.
In plain English, Johnson and Pelinka are salivating to make a deal. They have made it perfectly clear that they, and team owner Jeanne Buss, do not have the patience to let nature take its course over the next few years to see how the current young players mature. They have telegraphed to anyone who will listen that their intent is to reshape the roster this summer and bring in stars – superstars to be precise – and anyone who thinks any current Laker player is untouchable is sadly mistaken.
The question is, while the team is ready to deal, will they find a willing partner?
The term “superstar” is often misused. There are few true superstars in the NBA, if one defines the term as a player who joins a new team and immediately makes that team a title contender. By that measure, there are only two superstars in the league, LeBron James and Kevin Durant. If one is willing to define the term more expansively, the list could include players like Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Anthony Davis.
Then, there are the veteran “stars” of the league who will surely make any team better but may not be quite good enough to be the top dog on a championship team. The NBA is full of veterans who fit this description such as Jimmy Butler, Paul George, John Wall, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kyrie Irving, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarcus Cousins, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and Isiah Thomas, to name a few.
Finally, there are young players whose final ceiling has not been set, who despite their young age are already stars and have already shown potential to go on the become superstars. This list includes, for example, Karl-Anthony Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Devin Booker, Kristaps Porzingis, and Nikola Jokic.
While their desire is real, and there is a sense of urgency, do the Lakers have any realistic chance of obtaining one or more of the aforementioned players this offseason? While anything is possible, it might take a miracle.
The preference, of course, is to succeed in free agency because that way the team will not have to part with any assets in exchange. There are arguably six difference-makers who this summer will be unrestricted free agents or hold a player option. The players who control their own fate are Durant and Curry of Golden State; Griffin and Paul of the Clippers; Gordon Hayward of the Utah Jazz; and Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors. There are serious obstacles to the Lakers obtaining any of them.
For one, under the current collective bargaining agreement, teams have every advantage in retaining their top players because they can offer a fifth year on the new contract and guarantee tens of millions of dollars more than any other team can pay. Even the best players have a finite NBA life-span, so very few of them are willing to walk away from that magnitude of money, nor should they.
Still, there is a small precedent the Lakers can point to.
Durant left money behind went he left Oklahoma City to join Golden State. Aldridge did it when he departed Portland for San Antonio, and a few years ago Dwight Howard fled the Lakers to join the Houston Rockets in a state with no income tax which is a huge windfall. The common denominator is that these players all left to significantly increase the chance they would win a championship.
If free agency does not work, the team will try to make a trade, which is controversial with the fans since it means parting with young players in whom the team has invested heavily the past three years. If the team gives up too much in exchange, it has no talent left to surround the player whom it has acquired.
If Lakers keep their top pick in the draft this summer, and are willing to part with it, it will greatly increase the chance of pulling off a trade. The pick alone would not be enough, however, as it is certain they would still have to include one or more members of the young core to trade for a big star.
If they don’t keep the pick, the odds of making a successful trade are greatly diminished, since trading for any star player of the ilk mentioned above would no doubt mean parting with at least two members of the young core, maybe three, and one of those departing would almost surely have to be D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, or both.
Even if everyone on last year’s roster is fair game, the question is whether the Lakers will find a team that is actually willing to part with their own star. One must tune out the speculation about all the players who are supposedly dying to come to the Lakers, as 99% of that chatter is false.
Are the Chicago Bulls really going to trade Jimmy Butler, an all-star who statistically gets better every year, someone who is under contract for at least two more years and is in his prime? If they did trade him, wouldn’t they insist on the moon and the sun in return?
Paul George is in a slightly different position, because his contract will expire next year so there is pressure on Indiana to either sign him to an extension or risk losing him after next season for nothing in return. Recent history, however, suggests that teams are willing to let their star walk for nothing rather than give up hope prematurely that he can be re-signed.
There were strong rumors that Aldridge was going to leave Portland but the Trail Blazers made no attempt to trade him. The same occurred when Durant left for Golden State and LeBron James left Cleveland to go to Miami. Closer to home, the Lakers allowed Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol to leave and received nothing in return.
Unless George tells Indiana this summer that he is definitely, unequivocally leaving after next season, it is highly unlikely that General Manager Larry Bird will trade him this summer. Even if he does tell Bird he plans on leaving, Bird is so competitive that he will probably still believe he can convince George to change his mind when decision-day arrives.
Bird knows that NBA stars don’t grow on trees, especially in Indiana. George is a star and the heart of their franchise, and he is only 26. Then, there is the risk of trading for George when he can leave in a year and go to the team of his choice.
No one in the Lakers organization ever thought that Howard would ever walk out the door after one season. In the modern NBA, that sort of thing happens, and it could happen with George. Imagine the consequences of trading D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and a top 3 pick for George this summer, and then he decides to leave as a free agent after next season. The franchise might as well fold.
No one should be fooled by the fact that George grew up in Southern California. Rumors abound all the time that players want to return to where they were raised, like last year when many were sure that if Durant left Oklahoma City he would return home to play for the Wizards.
George may or may not want to play in Southern California, but will he really want to re-sign with a Lakers team if they do not sniff the playoffs next year?
That said, Johnson and Pelinka are confident and they intend to acquire a superstar this summer and seem willing to go all out to make it happen. Hopefully they will succeed without sacrificing their best young talent, but wanting it to happen and making it happen are two different things. Johnson and Pelinka are formidable, but given the obstacles, Johnson really will be the Magic Man if he can pull it off.