Los Angeles Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak has said that he is happy with the young core of players the team has assembled, and he expects to add to that core this summer with selections at the top of the first and second rounds of the draft. It sounds good, but it may not be entirely true.
If the Lakers’ goal is to win a championship, the front office should take notice that the four teams in the conference finals this year all feature multiple superstars who are in their prime.
The Golden State Warriors have Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. The Cleveland Cavaliers’ roster includes LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. The Oklahoma City Thunder feature the dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Toronto Raptors’ backcourt consists of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
The youngest player on this list is Irving at age 24, but he is completing his fifth year in the league.The others are all between 26 and 31.
The plain truth is that the NBA is a star-driven league, and no franchise will seriously compete for a championship in the modern era without multiple seasoned superstars on the roster. In the days of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and later Kobe and Shaq, it took two top players to win a championship. In today’s NBA, three superstars is preferable. The Miami Heat set the modern standard when they featured a line-up that included LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade.
By this measure, the Lakers are, as currently constituted, light years away from competing for a championship. They have no stars or superstars, and it is too speculative to try to find a future superstar in the draft; plus, you then usually have to wait five years or more for the player drafted to reach his peak. There is only one Magic Johnson or LeBron James per era, a transcendent player who makes your team an instant championship challenger from the moment he enters the league.
The Lakers’ front office knows all of this and is not going to be content to sit around for another five years to find out if the current core will develop into championship caliber talent. For that reason, no matter what they say publicly, management is going to swing for the fences again this off-season. They may or may not succeed, but they are going to try to sign two max players. If they do, the roster will look very different when next season starts from what fans expect at the moment.
It is unlikely the Lakers will be able to sign two star players in free agency. The only true superstar who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason is Durant, and with a trip to the NBA finals looking very likely for the Thunder, it is impossible to believe he will be moving to any other team this summer.
The other top free agents are a couple of steps below Durant talent-wise. DeMar DeRozan, Al Horford, and Hassan Whiteside are good players and would be an upgrade for the Lakers, but initially, the front office will likely aim higher. That means they will be looking to make a trade, and for that to happen, they will have to part with one or more of their current young assets.
The most prominent trade targets that have been mentioned are Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins, and Paul George. Cousins would fill a big need for the Lakers at the center position. George and Butler would fill the void at small forward. These are all elite players, and the Lakers would likely trade Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson in a heartbeat to obtain any of them.
They covet superstars so badly that they might also be willing to part with D’Angelo Russell or the second pick in the draft to go along with either Randle or Clarkson.
The Lakers would happily put together a package to acquire Cousins, George, or Butler, but the bigger question is whether their current teams would even consider parting with them for what the Lakers could offer, or at all. The answer is, probably not, but maybe.
George and Butler are 26, while Cousins is 25, so all are just entering their prime as NBA players. Still, there are signs that they might be available for the right price. The Chicago Bulls are a mess, and there are rumors that the relationship with Butler is strained, so there has been plenty of speculation that he may be on his way out.
Likewise, Cousins’ troubles in Sacramento have been well documented, and while management publicly keeps saying he is not going to be traded, the situation appears to be fluid. As for George, he seems the least likely to be moved, but Indiana is in rebuilding mode and George’s big contract does them little good unless they can surround him with more talent.
In the end, there is every reason to believe that the Lakers want Cousins, Whiteside or Horford as their center next season; and they also want George, Butler, or DeRozan as a wing player. If they have an opportunity to sign one of these centers and one of these wing players, they will do whatever it takes to bring them in.
They need stars, both from a public relations standpoint and to make the playoffs, and these players would meet that goal. If the Lakers can make it happen, they will part with one or two of their young players and the roster may look different in the fall.