Well…this isn’t how Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka drew it up.
With less than 20 games remaining on what’s been a tumultuous season (to say the least), the Los Angeles Lakers — barring a complete miracle — will miss out on postseason play for the sixth-straight season.
There are a multitude of reasons for why this season derailed. Injuries, a lack of consistency on both ends of the court, and quirky coaching decisions surely played into the underachieving nature of this team.
Alas, Lakers fans shouldn’t be ready to bury their heads in the proverbial sand just yet. The team still has the world’s best player in LeBron James, a bevy of young players with value, ample cap space, and all of its draft picks for the foreseeable future.
This piece will look at three ways the Lakers can reemerge as a real threat within the Western Conference a year from now.
1. Add a Marquee Guy Next to LeBron
There’s no shortage of elite names out on the market come this July. The likes of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker, DeMarcus ‘Boogie’ Cousins, Kawhi Leonard, Tobias Harris, and Khris Middleton will all be free agents in a few months.
For years, we’ve been hearing about how the Lakers are one big free agency summer away from returning to relevancy. Through the moves made by Maginka (aka Magic and Pelinka), the Lakers do have enough space to add one max free agent. The problem is, we don’t know if that’ll happen. Durant and Irving have long been rumored to be heading to New York. Durant’s prickly nature in the media over anything LeBron-centric likely precludes him coming to LA.
Leonard is likely leaving the cold of Toronto for the warmth of Los Angeles. The only problem is…it’ll likely be the Clippers garnering his services rather than the Lakers. Thompson appears destined to stay in Golden State. Duly, it remains to be seen whether Walker, Middleton, or Harris are good enough to be second cogs on a title team. From there, you have the two most volatile players remaining: Butler and Cousins. Cousins is coming off a severe injury, and has — shall we say — a history with attitude issues. Butler isn’t a choir boy, either. Aside from that, he’s approaching his 30th birthday.
There’s also the Anthony Davis situation hanging over everyone’s minds. After publicly being humiliated in talks which included virtually the entire team, there’s no certainty that the Lakers can get Davis — let alone even be considered in any future talks. With Boston now being a player in the sweepstakes, Los Angeles could watch its biggest rival snake a player that was billed as the heir apparent to James.
Simply put, the Lakers must add some combination of star power next to James. With his enhanced timetable, the team can’t wait around for Brandon Ingram to turn into an All-Star caliber player (if he ever does get to that point). Whether it be acquiring someone in free agency or via trade, the Lakers simply cannot run the same team back if they have any aspirations of a title.
2. Be Smart in Free Agency
As we saw this past offseason, the front office completely blew every single free agent signing outside of LeBron (the decision to sign Michael Beasley over resigning Brook Lopez — for essentially the same money — was abhorrent). They assembled a group of players with no shooting ability, poor defensive ability, and ones with bizarre personalities. This simply cannot happen this upcoming July.
It would be a shock to see Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, or Lance Stephenson back next year. The one free agent worth exploring for a reunion is Reggie Bullock. Above all else, the team DESPERATELY needs to add shooting. The Lakers are currently second-to-last in the league in three-point percentage. James’ whole game is exploiting the lane before kicking it to shooters in the corner. This method has been the most successful for LeBron over his career. This year, the floor has shrunk considerably. Lanes are smaller, and opposing teams simply have been packing the lane — daring Rondo, Lonzo Ball, and Kyle Kuzma to chuck threes (hint: they aren’t making them).
Secondly, ancillary pieces must be added. These types of players should possess defensive versatility, as well as a want-to in terms of effort. Josh Hart demonstrates some of these characteristics, but the Lakers need more guys in this capacity. In short, spot-up shooting and high-IQ defensive-minded players must be on the agenda. Players fitting the bill under this description include Bojan Bogdanovic, J.J. Redick, Danny Green, Terrence Ross, Wesley Matthews, and Kent Bazemore.
There’s also the question as to whether the Lakers would panic by throwing all of its cap space to a guy like Butler. Would it really be prudent to give him a 4-year, $140 million contract? He’ll surely help in the interim, but what will that contract look like when he’s at age 33? The same goes for Cousins, as he’s not a sure thing to revert back to the form he had pre-Achilles injury. However, the Lakers might not have any choice if they can’t lure another top free agent.
3. Use Assets Wisely
Based upon the team’s current standing, it’s slated to get a lottery pick in this year’s upcoming NBA Draft. Normally, a LeBron-led team wants nothing to do with young players. Adding another 19-year-old to the preexisting core isn’t something James would likely want to sign up for (unless that name was Zion Williamson).
As such, it’ll be quite fascinating to see where the Lakers will be picking — and if this asset will be used in a trade for Davis (or some other player). From there, LA will have to determine whether it makes sense to part with Ingram. The sinewy forward has been very good since the All-Star break, and finally looks like he’s coming into his own as a competent complementary piece. Kuzma certainly looks like the type of player who’d be included in a trade for a proven guy, and there’s no telling how the rest of the league values Ball.
With a potentially high draft pick and a number of young assets, the Lakers have to “get it right” if they’re to ship them out for an All-Star. The team can ill-afford another situation in which a former high pick (D’Angelo Russell) turns into a legit player on another team.
In conclusion, the Lakers must do three things:
- Sign an elite guy next to LeBron (preferably one of Kawhi, LeBron, Kyrie)
- Make smart choices with lower-level guys when filling out rest of roster
- Accurately rate preexisting talent before shipping it away
- Bonus: Hope that Durant doesn’t resign with Golden State
If all comes to fruition — particularly if Durant is on the East Coast next year — we could be looking at the Lakers as a contender. If the front office continues to make the same mistakes, the pertinent question next may include whether the team should look to do the unthinkable and trade LeBron for young assets.