2017–2018 NBA Offseason Review: Los Angeles Lakers
Magic Johnson and Co. didn’t just deliver on their promise of luring a superstar, they added the definitive one of this generation. You’d think the excitement level would be higher.
Just like that, the Los Angeles Lakers are back on the map. Or so you’d think.
The NBA’s topography has changed quite a bit since the last time LeBron James changed teams, and even more so since the time before that. While he is still the league’s best player, the definiteness and duration of his reign are both shrinking. Amplifying those concerns are the Golden State Warriors, who were good enough to beat 32-year-old LeBron in five games and 33-year-old LeBron in four. At 34, the question is not whether James can win a game against Golden State, but whether he can lead the Lakers far enough to find out.
Some believe he can. Others agree in a roundabout way; they expect the Lakers to be the №7 or №8 seed. There are even those who don’t think L.A. will make the playoffs at all. It took 48 wins to get in last year, and that James’ Cavs won 50 in the weak east does not bode well for a Lakers team that lacks a Kevin Love-level sidekick.
For what it’s worth, I disagree with that assessment. Last year’s Lakers won 35 games, with the net rating of a 37-win team. Simply replacing Julius Randle with James should be worth 12-to-15 wins, and that’s assuming that the team’s ultra-young core makes zero strides playing alongside the best playmaker in the world.
Not that it matters. The James signing was not about winning a title this year, or even making the playoffs. Those would both be nice, but c’est la vie in the 2018 NBA. Wanting a ring does not entitle to you one, not even if you’re the league’s glamour franchise. All that Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka can do is make the best moves they can, and hope to get better faster than James gets worse.
So far, they’re on the right track.
Michael Beasley (1 year, $3.5 million)
Isaac Bonga (3 years, $4.1 million)
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (1 year, $12 million)
LeBron James (4 years, $153 million, player option on final year)
JaVale McGee (1 year, $2.4 million)
Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (3 years, $4.6 million)
Rajon Rondo (1 year, $9 million)
Lance Stephenson (1 year, $4.4 million)
Moritz Wagner (№27 pick scale)
Two-Ways and Non/Partial Guarantees
Joel Berry (likely non-guarantee)
Jeffrey Carroll (likely non-guarantee)
Travis Wear (two-way)
Lakers deserve more credit for LeBron James signing
If you think this story starts and ends with James simply wanting to live in Los Angeles, you haven’t been paying attention to what the Magic Johnson regime has done to make that decision viable.
Let’s work backwards, and start with the February trade Johnson struck with James’ old team. Not only did L.A. get off of Jordan Clarkson’s awful deal, but it got the pick that would become Moritz Wagner. Larry Nance — whose NBA fit I still do not quite understand, and who I have a sneaking suspicion might actually be what people used to accuse Blake Griffin of being — was a small price to pay to get off that money, especially considering L.A. took back a pick that turned into a better-fitting replacement.
While the move saved Cleveland’s season, it did nothing to convince James to stay. If anything, Clarkson’s dead money made leaving a tiny bit easier — though it’s highly unlikely the King was breaking the pros and cons down to that level of minutiae.
One thing that James certainly did consider was the Lakers’ ample cap space — not just that they had enough to sign him, but enough to add a second star. This goes back to last summer, when Johnson and Pelinka first dumped Timofey Mozgov for Brook Lopez’s expiring deal, and then opted against adding long-term salary in order to marginally increase the team’s 2017–18 win total.
That kind of discipline is underappreciated. It was not lost on James, who happily signed over the remainder of his prime to a team with cap room and flexibility, an intact young core, and most importantly, a front office with a reliable track record.
Of course, the Lakers had inherent advantages. They play their home games in the same city James lives in during the offseason, which also happens to be the best city for his post-career aspirations in entertainment. They are also the Lakers, and there’s a desire inside every basketball player to put on the Purple and Gold — even one who is already greater than any player in the storied franchise’s history.
That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve credit. We criticized Mitch Kupchak for overpaying a washed up Kobe Bryant, overpaying Mozgov and Luol Deng and assuming that their aura alone was enough to convince great players to play there. Johnson and Pelinka thought differently, and put the franchise in position to lure a superstar this summer. Instead, they lured LeBron freaking James.
Subsequent moves more logical than illogical
After about a day of praise, L.A.’s front office was back under the gun. And while we can talk about how strange some of their personnel choices have been, we should not equate level of confusion with level of concern.
Trust me, the irony is not lost on this writer. James stressed the importance of playing with “very cerebral” teammates in mid-June, and was slated to play alongside Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley by mid-July.
Personally, I don’t think the fit is terrible. Everyone cries for James to be surrounded by shooters, but Cleveland’s singular focus on doing just that left the team without reliable secondary shot creators and ball handlers, quality perimeter defenders, vertical spacers or floor-running shot blockers.
Certainly more shooting is needed than that which is provided by the trio of Stephenson, McGee and Beasley, but guess what? That shooting is actually present on this roster. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (2.1 made threes at 38.3%), Kyle Kuzma (2.1 at 36.6%), Josh Hart (1.2 at 39.6%) and Brandon Ingram (0.7 at 39.0%) were all retained, and should all benefit from the pressure that James — and, yes, Stephenson, McGee and Beasley — alleviate.
Look, I’m not saying the Lakers hit home runs here. There were probably slightly more natural fits available for minimum contracts. There were certainly better options than giving $9 million to Rajon Rondo, the most cerebral but also the worst-fitting veteran L.A. brought in. Rondo is ball dominant, poor on defense most of the time, bad at shooting most of the time and plays the same position as Lonzo Ball always. Given the Rondo deal as part of the package, I will not argue with anyone who says that the Lakers four big role player additions were, on a whole, subpar.
I will argue the importance of this reality, however.
Just as they did in 2017, the Lakers avoided signing any bad deals of long-term significance. And just as it was last summer, their patience is being overlooked.
We always talk about how “Player X is good, but not worth his contract.” If we are going to criticize teams for these types of deals, then we necessarily must praise teams for avoiding them. If the Mozgov and Deng contracts were disasters of the highest magnitude, then the refusal to repeat those mistakes is a similarly monumental success.
Another triumph in restraint: L.A.’s stubbornness on the trade market. Kawhi Leonard was 100% available, as was, apparently, DeMar DeRozan. While I do not have enough information to assign percentages to anyone else, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Love, C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard were all presumably attainable for the right price.
Without a commitment from Paul George, Chris Paul or any other top free agent, however, L.A. decided it best to stand pat. Two stars aren’t going to get it done in the West. For those who cite Houston’s proximity to Golden State, let me remind you that a Lakers team minus some combination of Ingram, Hart, Kuzma and Ball is galaxies away from what Houston’s supporting cast was. By waiting, the Lakers can add a second star into cap space next summer, and either trade for a third or see if one of their youngsters morphs into one.
The Lakers are not title contenders in 2018–19. That is an understandably difficult pill to swallow for fans of a team that just signed a guy who is the best player on the planet but is also 33 years old, going on 34.
James’ inevitable eventual decline makes punting a season tough. It also makes doing so all the more impressive.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.
Follow Simon on Twitter @Simoncgo