After the dust settled from the NBA trade deadline, one of the league's flagship organizations grabbed the biggest headlines. While many front offices were pounding the phones, the Los Angeles Lakers (19-41) were parting ways with longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak, embattled executive Jim Buss and, for some inexplicable reason, vice-president of public relations John Black, who had been with the club for 27 years, in what can almost certainly be described as an "out with the old, in with the new" strategy.
Laker great Magic Johnson was named team president while the general manager duties went to Rob Pelinka, as Los Angeles seemed to take a page out of the Golden State Warriors' playbook by hiring an agent to be in charge of trades and signings.
While a fresh start with a new front office may seem like a step in the right direction, the Lakers' fortunes may not turn so quickly. More than 20 years ago, the Lakers were a playoff team seeking to become contenders and through some salary-cap maneuvering were able to land superstar center free agent Shaquille O'Neal and a trade for the No. 13 pick to draft teenage phenom Kobe Bryant.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, turning a team around nowadays is a lot harder than it was in 1996. Top superstars seem to mostly be entrenched with their organization, as LeBron James is looking to win more rings in Cleveland with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, and while the Warriors have four All-Stars, and the Spurs find a way to keep winning even without Tim Duncan because head coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford are still working their magic.
With free agents like LaMarcus Aldridge overlooking the allure of Hollywood, the Lakers' approach in recent years has been to find a new coach to turn things around and rebuild through the lottery. But it didn't take long for Mike Brown, Mike D'Antoni and Byron Scott to be let go and top draft choices Julius Randle, D'Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram have shown promise but have yet to lift the Lakers out of their doldrums. There was some hope that the Lakers' fortunes would improve without Bryant hoisting up ill-advised shots, but the Lakers' struggles have carried over into this season.
Despite a solid start to the season in which the Lakers won eight of their first 15 games, first-year head coach Luke Walton quickly saw how his young roster, even aided by veterans Lou Williams, Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, couldn't keep up that pace, losing 11 of their next 13 games. After dealing Williams before the deadline to the Houston Rockets for what essentially will be a very late first-round pick, the Lakers have reverted back to hoping they can keep their top-three protected pick by finishing with one of the worst records in the league.
Should the Lakers keep their pick, they will likely choose between guards Markelle Fultz (Washington) and Lonzo Ball (UCLA), or small forwards Josh Jackson (Kansas) or Jonathan Isaac (Florida State). None of the four have "future superstar" tattooed on their foreheads so the road to the top will almost certainly involve signing a free agent or making a major deal, thus adding pressure to Johnson and Pelinka.
In fact, the Lakers don't have to look any further than their previous home to see an organization that has found a way to draft well but fall short of success. In Minneapolis, the Timberwolves drafted back-to-back rookies of the year with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns to go along with other burgeoning young players like Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine and recent lottery pick Kris Dunn. Yet, Minnesota still remains a longshot to reach the playoffs even with the No. 8 seed in the West likely to finish with a sub-.500 record.
Indeed, the Timberwolves are proof that waiting for young players to improve can be a long and tiresome process, which is something for Johnson and Pelinka to really think about. Minnesota would be happy with just a trip to the playoffs, while the Lakers' grand hopes are to somehow challenge for a title sometime soon.
In other words, Johnson and Pelinka may have their work cut out for them in spite of their grand ambitions to return the Lakers to championship glory. They have inherited some quality young talent but luring an elite free agent or finding trading partners willing to surrender a player in their prime for what the Lakers are offering should be tougher than it looks.
The one player that might consider a move to Los Angeles is Paul George. The Indiana Pacers forward, who grew up in California, is expected to be a top target for the Lakers when he becomes a free agent in 2018, according to NBA insiders. USA Today reporter Sam Amick reported that George would be willing to leave Indiana if the Pacers are not in title contention.
By the summer of 2018, George will be 28 years old—a ripe age to make a serious push at his first championship. But George will have time to examine the NBA landscape and assess whether the Lakers' surrounding parts are enough to give him a decent shot at a ring. The Lakers, meanwhile, can't put all their eggs in the George basket.
There was some thought that Russell Westbrook, a Los Angeles native, would bolt from Oklahoma City after Kevin Durant moved to Oakland, but Westbrook put an end to any Laker rumors when he signed a multi-year contract with the Thunder.
The Lakers may have enough trade bait by next year's deadline to make a deal for players like C.J. McCollum and Giannis Antetokounmpo, but that will all depend on whether their current up-and-coming players like Russell and Ingram will be attractive to teams. Johnson and Pelinka will also have the cap space to add some decent free agents this summer. Players like Westbrook have player options in 2018, as well, and could perhaps be enticed to play in L.A. if it meant George was also on the roster.
In the meantime, the Lakers should direct their attention to other areas. A good start would be to invest in scouting with the hopes of landing a diamond-in-the-rough player with the Rockets' pick and with the Lakers' second round pick. It seems silly to place an emphasis on late selections, but the Spurs have been the league's most consistent powerhouse by making the most of their non-lottery draft picks. Manu Ginobili went No. 57 in the 1999 draft, while Tony Parker went No. 28 in the 2001 draft. The front office also traded for Kawhi Leonard, who was the No. 15 pick in the 2011 draft.
Are Pelinka, Johnson and the Lakers scouts up to the task? Kupchak did a fine job with recent draft picks—even the second-round ones with Jordan Clarkson and Ivica Zubac—but the Lakers will need to at least duplicate the same draft success, on top of getting a little luck on the free-agent market if they hope to contend for a title anytime soon.
It doesn't end there, either. The Lakers brand appears to be waivering in recent years with the Clippers success and with the Warriors expected to be contenders for a while. And the Lakers have been in rebuilding mode for so long that some prospective free agents may feel that the team is no longer a hot spot, particularly when they can play in Texas or Florida where there is no income tax.
It's up to Johnson, among the most charismatic athletes in American sports history, to convince prospective free agents that the Lakers are once again a team on the rise and not one that recycles coaches and gets dissed by players like Dwight Howard.
It can happen, but it probably won't be easy. For now, Johnson has the faith of Jeannie Buss and the Lakers young head coach.
"There’s a reason he’s as successful as he is, because he has a way with people,” said Walton.
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