As we said goodbye to 2018, it’s important to take a moment to reflect on the year and what it meant for the resurgent Los Angeles Lakers.
As a franchise that spent the past five seasons struggling to rebuild as the retirement of Kobe Bryant ushered in a new era, 2018 saw the franchise create an identity and strategy that would ultimately put them back in the mix in the Western Conference.
The following are the top five Lakers moments of the past year in no particular order.
Lakers sign JaVale McGee Los Angeles didn’t wow anyone with the signing of McGee to a minimum contract in July. The veteran center had spent his last two years winning championships as a role player with the Golden State Warriors, but had averaged less than 10 minutes per game.
Replacing Brook Lopez, who had a solid 17-18 seasons for the Lakers, with McGee, appeared to be a questionable decision. As it turns out, Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka knew exactly what they were doing.
McGee has proven to be one of the best bargains of the summer as he has established himself as an elite lob target and a major deterrent at the rim, blocking 2.6 blocks per game in just over 23 minutes. He also didn’t bat an eye when the Lakers brought in Tyson Chandler to take on some of the minutes in the middle, instead relishing in the team’s ability to have a true big on the floor at all times.
It was a move that didn’t receive much fanfare at the time, but signing McGee was certainly one of the best decisions made by the front office in 2018.
Lakers Defeat Warriors on Christmas: This one barely sneaks in at the tail end of 2018, but what a Christmas gift it was for fans. During the offseason, LeBron James was criticized for joining a Lakers filled with so many young players. The thought was that, even with James’ immense talent, the team wouldn’t be ready to compete.
With that in mind, the Lakers’ success against the title-favorite Warriors on Christmas showed that perhaps the young core is more ready than most thought, particularly since the win came with James sidelined for much of the second half due to a groin injury.
The Lakers had jumped out to an early lead and were up by 15 at halftime but a Warriors run, and James’ injury, allowed the lead to be cut to just two with a few minutes left in the third. All the momentum was on the side of Golden State, but the Lakers dug deep and managed to not only withstand the Warriors attack but also go on a massive run of their own, blowing out the defending champs.
It was an improbable statement win for the Lakers, and one that made Christmas a little more merry.
Trade Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr to CLE for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye, and 1st Round Pick: Since the arrival of Johnson, the Lakers have proven to be aggressive on the trade market, and 2018 was no different.
At the trade deadline, they pulled off quite the coup, sending Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Channing Frye, Isaiah Thomas, and a first-round pick, which would eventually be used to select Moritz Wagner.
Losing Clarkson and Nance wasn’t an easy decision to make. Both were prominent young players for the team and could have grown with the young squad for years to come. Both were found deep in their respective drafts, a testament to the Lakers’ scouting department.
However, by biting the bullet and making the trade the Lakers gave themselves the salary cap flexibility that may have been a big factor in bringing James to Los Angeles, ironically signing him away from the Cavs.
While the Lakers weren’t able to land a second star in free agency last summer, they will have another crack at it this coming offseason. If they are successful it could signal the Lakers return to title contention, making this bittersweet trade one of the biggest moments of 2018 for the franchise.
Defeating Celtics: The 2017-18 season for the Lakers was one of growth, featuring a core of young players who all, at varying points, flashed the potential to be part of a bright future. Still, it’s nice to pepper in a few wins in a season of player development, and getting a W over the Boston Celtics always feels meaningful.
Early in 2018, the Lakers picked up a victory over those hated Celtics by a single point, 108-107, and they did it without the services of an injured Lonzo Ball. Instead, it was fellow rookie Kyle Kuzma leading the way, scoring 28 huge points off the bench including five threes and a dazzling pair of behind-the-back passes to Nance.
The Lakers would ultimately decide to put their faith in Kuzma and commit to him being a starter in 2018-19 by parting ways with Julius Randle, and it was games like the one Kuzma turned in against the Celtics that helped make that decision.
The Celtics had an impressive wealth of young talent of their own on the floor with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, plus stars in Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, but it was the plucky young Lakers who took home the win in one of the most memorable games of 2018.
Signing LeBron James: The Lakers, under the leadership of Johnson and Pelinka, had carefully preserved their cap space so that they could attempt to lure a big fish to Los Angeles.
On July 2, 2018, they exceeded expectations and landed a whale when a press release from Klutch Sports let the world know that James had made up his mind and would be leaving Cleveland to take his talents to Los Angeles.
James, the biggest star in the NBA, instantly changed the fortunes of a Lakers franchise that had been searching for its next star since the retirement of Kobe Bryant. Johnson sold James on the team’s ability to surround him with players who could compliment him as well as the internal growth possible by the team’s young players.
Johnson had been brought in to right the ship, and when the time came, to do what his predecessors Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss couldn’t: close the best free agents available when the opportunity came to sign them.
James’ arrival not only signaled the start of a new era of Lakers basketball but also validated Jeanie Buss’ decision to oust her brother and Kupchak and replace them with Johnson and Pelinka. Perhaps most importantly, James’ signing meant that the Lakers were finally back.
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