During the NBA Draft Combine in May, Lakers’ President of Basketball Operations Earvin “Magic” Johnson was remarkably candid. At the time, everyone assumed the Lakers would be active in the free agent market this summer in their quest to transform a team that has struggled mightily the past four years.
Instead, Johnson announced for the entire world to hear that the Lakers were saving their cap space for the summer of 2018 and would not be a major participant in free agency this year. The immediate question was whether Johnson was telling the truth.
Most front offices are very secretive about their offseason plans, and some purposely leak misinformation just to mislead opponents. When they ran the team, Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak played it very close to the vest. In contrast, Johnson has been remarkably transparent. That he happily disclosed his plan for free agency was another example of how honest and forthright he has been with the media and the fans.
Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka have executed their plan to perfection. Brook Lopez was obtained for one year on an expiring contract. Somehow they convinced Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, an unexpected unrestricted free agent, to come to Los Angeles on a one-year deal.
Both are big, albeit temporary, upgrades: Lopez fits perfectly alongside Julius Randle and KCP should be a strong complement to Lonzo Ball in the backcourt.
Of course, some things did not work out.
The team tried hard to convince former All-Stars Rajon Rondo and Derrickk Rose to accept a one-year deal to mentor Ball. Eventually they both accepted offers from other teams with established superstars where they will likely start and be more prominently featured.
Still, for Johnson and Pelinka, mission accomplished. Lopez and KCP will earn nearly $40 million this season between them and both will be off the books next summer. Corey Brewer, who will be paid nearly $8 million for the 2017-18 season, is also on an expiring contract. The second year on Tyler Ennis’ contract is non-guaranteed so the Lakers can easily get out of that as well.
L.A is also reportedly confident that they can move Jordan Clarkson if they need more cap space, which they almost certainly will, while Julius Randle will be a restricted free agent who they could either move before the trade deadline or renounce during the summer.
Yes, Johnson and Pelinka have executed their plan to perfection and will have enormous cap space next summer to court the likes of LeBron James, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, and DeMarcus Cousins which appears to be the goal.
But what happens if the Lakers can’t get anyone to sign 12 months from now? A lot can change in the course of a full year.
Each offseason, rumors are rampant about all the major stars who are going to switch teams. In the end, fans are almost always left disappointed. Two years ago, despite all the chatter, the only prominent NBA player to change uniforms in the offseason was LaMarcus Aldridge.
Yes, it seems like every year the rumors turn out to be false. That is, until this year.
This summer has seen unprecedented change. By the time training camp starts, as many as seven current or former All-Stars will have moved to new cities. Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and Chris Paul were all traded, Gordon Hayward and Paul Millsap found new homes in free agency, and Kyrie Irving and Carmelo Anthony are both expected to be moved as well.
Whether any of next year’s free agents will turn down a much bigger paycheck that can be offered by their current team remains to be seen. No one should forget that star players tend to migrate to teams that are already very competitive, where one more major addition might put them over the top.
In contrast, the Lakers are not expected to make the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year.
If no one knows what next summer will bring, this offseason has offered an unprecedented opportunity for teams to get better and build for the future. No one predicted it. No one expected it. It probably won’t happen again like this for a long time and certain teams took advantage and dramatically improved.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have been hapless for years, but they somehow managed to trade for Jimmy Butler which is likely to transform the organization. The Oklahoma City Thunder were still reeling from the loss of Kevin Durant but pulled off a major deal for Paul George. The Boston Celtics were able to wrestle Gordon Hayward away from a very good Utah Jazz team.
Someone is going to end up with Kyrie Irving in the next six weeks, perhaps the Miami Heat, New York Knicks, or Phoenix Suns, which will dramatically improve all of those teams.
The point is, in the not too distant past, whenever a star player was rumored to be available, the Lakers would inevitably emerge as a leading candidate to land the player. This summer, they deliberately stood on the sidelines while other teams feasted on the abundant opportunities. It was all part of the plan, but should the front office have improvised?
No one is denying that Lopez and KCP are good additions to a Lakers team that was looking only for short terms options while still trying to improve. The front office was aggressive and did well in acquiring them. But they are not superstars, and the plan is for both to be with the team for one year only. If they return after next season, it only means the Lakers failed to sign the big name free agents they will covet next summer.
It would have been difficult, but should the Lakers have tried harder to get Paul George, Jimmy Butler, or Gordon Hayward this off season? Randle and Clarkson are good young players who would be missed by most Lakers fans, but if the front office really is prepared to move on from both to clear out cap space, why not do it this summer for a tangible piece?
It was reported that the Lakers offered Randle or Clarkson along with the 27th and 28th picks in the draft for George, but what if they had offered both? Would it have made a difference? Would it have been wiser to assimilate one star player into the team this summer rather than treading water for another year with solid short term players, hoping to totally reconfigure the roster in one swoop a year from now by signing two max players at the same time?
The fact is, next year is a mystery but this year is not: It presented great opportunity which the Lakers made a strategic decision to forego. If they end up with James and George a year from now it may all be academic. But if they don’t, the Lakers might look back on the summer of 2017 and wonder if they made a tactical mistake.