The Los Angeles Lakers struck out in NBA free agency the past few years. Things hit rock bottom last summer when the top players who were available refused to even meet with the team before signing elsewhere. Now, there is a new sheriff in town by the name of Magic Johnson, and along with deputy Rob Pelinka, there is hope that not only will they score meetings this offseason they may be able to convince free agents to take a chance on the purple and gold.
Signing another team’s star player has become more difficult under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement. A player’s present team can re-sign him for much more money – in some cases tens of millions of dollars more – and guarantee a fifth year on any contract. It has become very rare, but occasionally a star will forsake greater security and decide to change uniforms, such as Kevin Durant joining Golden State last summer and LaMarcus Aldridge signing with San Antonio the year before.
It is one thing to leave your team to join Golden State or San Antonio, and quite another to depart for the Lakers who have been one of the worst teams in the NBA the past four years.
Succeeding in free agency is especially important for the Lakers because it enables the team to add a player without losing anyone in return. Fans are attached to the young core after watching the players develop the past three seasons. Yet, if the Lakers are unsuccessful in free agency, the only other option is trading one, two, or possibly even three members of the young core to acquire another team’s star.
While there are no guarantees, on the surface, Johnson and Pelinka would appear to be a dynamic presence in any meeting with potential free agents. For the past few years, that job fell to Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak. Whatever you thought of them as NBA executives, they had to be the least dynamic or appealing duo to ever to represent a team in a meeting with free agents. It is hard to imagine them attracting, impressing or selling the Lakers to a young NBA star in this era.
Buss, whether fairly or unfairly, was the most despised and belittled sports executive in Los Angeles once Donald Sterling exited the Clippers. Kupchak, who was well respected for his basketball knowledge, had no charisma, spoke in monotone, and engendered no excitement of any kind. Could you even envision those two trying to relate to a modern NBA free agent?
By all accounts, Buss and Kupchak were utterly underwhelming in their meetings with free agents the past few years. If you are a 27-year-old six-year veteran in the modern era, who is the best player on his current team but growing impatient waiting for the team to become a contender, would you embrace Buss or Kupchak, or have confidence that they could be the ones to lead the Lakers to another golden age? Enter Johnson and Pelinka, who are the exact opposite of Buss and Kupchak.
Johnson is perhaps the most charismatic figure in NBA history. As a player, he revolutionized the game as a 6’9” point guard who led the Showtime Lakers, who not only won five championships but were one of the most exciting teams in the history of sports. Although he retired from the game some 25 years ago, what current NBA player could ever forget Johnson’s prowess as a leader and a player?
Johnson brought that same zeal for life to his post-basketball career. He became a very successful businessman who earned the respect of just about everyone. Through it all, he has retained his image as a national treasure, one of the most likable and affable figures in Southern California and the nation. For anyone who missed his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live earlier this month, in which he discussed what he would do if he found himself on vacation and discovered Paul George was staying at the same hotel, it was a classic.
It is inconceivable that any free agent would refuse to meet with Johnson, or would not want to join a team where he could become their mentor. Perhaps you caught the Instagram photo that Devin Booker posted last week where he proudly posed for a photo with Johnson. You could tell that Booker, a 20-year-old phenom with the Phoenix Suns, was thrilled to be in Johnson’s presence.
Pelinka should not be underestimated, either. He is a very successful sports agent who is well known to NBA players and friends with many of them. In that position, to succeed, you must know how to relate to and engender the confidence of the NBA’s best players. They must know you are on their side.
In all the years he played for the Lakers, Kobe Bryant never looked chummy with anyone. He was aloof and standoffish, and even when he became more verbal and approachable later in his career, one never envisioned Bryant hanging out with friends.
So what does it say that Bryant and Pelinka are good friends, to the point that they have even gone on vacation together? Bryant is picky. He is selective. He is fearless, and one would think he would only associate with people who meet his very high standards. If Pelinka could pass that test, it must mean he is a very special, driven and focused man.
This summer, many of the top free agents are point guards, and if there is one position where the Lakers need to upgrade, that is it. The top options include stars Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry, plus there are other solid choices in George Hill, Jeff Teague, and Los Angeles native Jrue Holiday. If you are any one of these players, it is hard to imagine saying no to a meeting with Johnson, arguably the greatest point guard in NBA history. While signing any of them would seem a stretch, once you get into meeting anything can happen, especially if you are as impressive as Johnson and Pelinka.
Other top free agents this summer include Blake Griffin, Serge Ibaka, Gordon Hayward, and Paul Milsap. Hayward and Milsap are very likely to re-sign with their current teams, and while Griffin and Ibaka may do the same, they could potentially be in play. Griffin could decide that after the injuries he has endured the past couple of seasons, and playing for a team whose window has probably closed and could lose Paul this offseason, he would be better served by getting a fresh start.
While Griffin has been linked to his hometown Oklahoma City Thunder, where he could play with Russell Westbrook, there are whispers that he has major entertainment industry aspirations and might very well want to remain in Los Angeles for that reason. Johnson would be all over that angle.
Johnson and Pelinka are certainly open to signing two major free agents this summer – in fact, they want to hit a home run if the right players are available. They are facing cap space issues, however, due in large part to the disastrous signings of Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov to big money long-term contracts last offseason.
The conventional wisdom is that it will be impossible to unload those contracts on another team, but Johnson and Pelinka are going to try. If they can do it, there is a possibility that the Lakers may be in line for two significant upgrades over the summer. If Mozgov and Deng prove to be un-moveable, the team may try to create space by parting ways with players such as Tarik Black, Nick Young, Corey Brewer, and even Jordan Clarkson, all of whom are in line to earn $6 million or more next season.
The Lakers front office figures to be very active this summer, and there is a clear sense that they will leave no stone unturned to try to upgrade the roster. Whether it can be done remains to be seen, as there are serious challenges given a lack of cap space, issues with the CBA, and an underwhelming roster that has no stars and is filled with young players who may, or may not, fulfill their perceived potential.
Say what you will about their lack of front office experience, which could be a factor in some areas with Johnson and Pelinka in charge, the Lakers are in the best possible hands when it comes to free agency. If they can get a player in the room, these two men are likely to make a very persuasive pitch, and they are known as closers. It should be an exciting free agency period, and very interesting to see if Johnson and Pelinka can do what Buss and Kupchak could not – lure a major star to a Lakers team that was one of the league’s worst this past season.