It's Time for the Lakers to Adapt, or Die
If the summer of 2017 wasn’t the Summer of The Worst Trades Ever, the Los Angeles Lakers trade with the Brooklyn Nets would have been the worst trade of the summer.
Considering the trade involved the league’s most famous franchise and a controversial number two overall pick, it went somewhat under-the-radar; likely due to the fact that it came just two days before Jimmy Butler was traded and 10 days before Paul George was traded. Those were two of the worst trades in NBA history — but the Lakers-Nets trade wasn’t exactly a home run either.
Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka agreed to trade D’Angelo Russell and $15 million worth of Timofey Mozgov to the Nets in exchange for All-Star center Brook Lopez and the 27th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, which did ultimately become rookie phenom Kyle Kuzma. (It’s important to note in the record of this trade that the Lakers already had the 28th pick, and almost certainly could have found a way to get Kuzma without giving up Russell.)
The Lakers’ decision to give up on Russell was disastrous. It looked disastrous at the time, and that feeling is quickly being confirmed as he plays exactly how everyone expected him to in a better situation in Brooklyn.
The key factor in the deal was the Mozgov contract. Less than 365 days after the deal was inked, the franchise’s new guard knew exactly how unacceptable it was. They gave up one of their most valuable assets to get rid of it.
It’s a common NBA practice; one that the Toronto Raptors engaged in with the Nets just weeks later. A team with cap space takes on one of your assets and one of your liabilities. You get cap space, they get a free asset.
On a micro level, it’s reasonable. But on a macro level, it was a confusing move. Mainly due to one question — what were the Lakers getting cap space for?
Johnson and Pelinka didn’t seem to have an answer either. They used their newfound cap space to sign Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a one-year, $18 million deal. The idea is that they have cap space going into next year so they can chase all of their Paul George and LeBron James-centric dreams. And in the meantime they get...a look at KCP?
This type of short-sighted move has defined this era for the Lakers, the worst in their history. They undervalued and rid themselves of an asset to make room for free agents who may never want to sign there. It’s a move that smells more of Sacramento Kings than of San Antonio Spurs.
Now, they’re doing the same with Julius Randle.
Randle is a 22 year old power forward who the Lakers drafted seventh overall in 2014. He’s an interesting player by any measure. His career started as badly as a career can start, with a season-ending injury in his first game. Since then, he has constantly improved. He’s thrived in a limited role this year, shooting over 60 percent from the field. He’s already a solid rebounder, and he’s a much better passer than he gets credit for. If he ever become a high-end defensive presence — and some of the signs are there — he could be really good.
Unfortunately, the Lakers don’t seem to be interested. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported that Randle is very unlikely to be a Laker beyond this year. And here we go again.
It’s frankly embarrassing. The Lakers haven’t made the playoffs since 2013. They haven’t won more than 30 games in any of those four years. They’re in a serious rebuilding period for the first time in their history. Unfortunately, they still don’t seem to know it.
The great part about being terrible for four straight years is getting great picks. The Lakers got the number seven pick in 2014, then the number two pick three years in a row. One of those number two picks is already gone. The number seven pick is up next. All based on the hope that James and George want to wear purple and gold.
The most frustrating part of it all? Most rebuilding teams would kill for the young guys the Lakers have assembled. A core of Russell, Randle, Kuzma, Larry Nance Jr., Brandon Ingram, and Lonzo Ball is a fantastic result of a four-year rebuild. But the Lakers are letting them go one at a time.
They put Russell in a bad situation, then sent him away. This year, they’ve reduced Randle’s role and actively discouraged him from doing things he’s good at in order to give more control to Lonzo Ball. He’ll be wearing a different uniform before long.
So who do they push out next? Ingram has looked great to start the year, but what if he goes cold for 30 games? Will he be packaged with Luol Deng in a trade? Are any of these guys off limits?
We will learn a lot about what the Lakers are made of based on how they handle their most recent lottery pick, Lonzo Ball. It already isn’t off to a great start.
Ball has come into his rookie year with an unprecedented amount of skepticism and a blazing hot spotlight, and the Lakers aren’t doing him any favors.
The point guard out of UCLA is playing the most minutes on the team, and taking the third most shots. He has been awful as the world has watched, shooting 31 percent from the field and 25 percent from three — historically bad numbers. But they’ve continued to give him the keys, letting him run 31 percent of their pick and rolls and use 11 percent of their possessions, according to Synergy Sports.
After years of jerking their prospects around and failing to maximize them, they have found a new way to do it with Ball. They’ve given him absolute control of an NBA offense way, way before he is ready.
Maybe it will turn out okay. Ball has already acknowledged that the criticism of his shooting is affecting his mentality. But he’s so young, and it’s so early in his career. He could still end up being an All-Star, an MVP, a Hall of Famer. We don’t know.
There is one question at the core of all of this that there seems to be no answer to. What does the finished product of this team look like in the Lakers’ imagination? Is it Ball, Kuzma, and Ingram? Or is it LeBron James and Paul George?
Their moves don’t come together to form a coherent plan for either option. If you’re looking to build for 2021 — the obviously correct choice with the Golden State Warriors casting a shadow over the league — you can’t be pushing out young players at random. If the plan is to bring in James and George this summer — an already specious plan to begin with — you can’t be wasting all of this time and energy on Ball.
If James, by some miracle, decides to play with the Lakers, what does that mean for Ball, the guy who Magic Johnson deemed as his heir? James won’t be playing with a 20 year old Lonzo Ball next year, for a million reasons both on court and off. So does he get the Russell treatment, being sent out the door in exchange for a veteran?
In that case, what was the point of any of this? Why draft anyone? Why even field a team for the last four years? Just so LeBron James and Paul George can lose to the Warriors in five games in the Conference Finals?
A lot of teams around the league have made the odd decision to accelerate their young team’s trajectory, the Minnesota Timberwolves being the greatest example. But the Wolves made that decision when a once-in-a-lifetime trade was on the table. They didn’t just decide to plow a wrecking ball through an entire potential era just in hopes of chasing a LeBron-shaped pipe dream.
If the Lakers had implemented a plan, if they had priorities, maybe if they knew who was in charge of the team when the rebuild started — they would be in a great position right now.
Instead, they’ve drunkenly stumbled back-and-forth between concepts, consistently drafting interesting prospects seemingly by accident. They’ve then neutered their young core based on some fantasy of signing superstars down the road — because that’s what the Lakers do.
But it isn’t too late for the Lonzo Ball era. It’s time for them to stop worrying about the 2018 free agent class, and start worrying about the 2021 Lakers. Whether that team is a playoff team on the rise, or a sad shell of a failed era is based on every decision they make right now. It’s time to start making the right ones.