When the Los Angeles Lakers hired Magic Johnson as the franchise’s president of basketball operations in February 2017 they made it perfectly clear that he was going to help bring superstars back to the Lakers, nurture the young talent and ultimately contend for championships. After all, the Lakers, as Magic affectionately emphasises often, are one of the few sports franchises where exceptionalism is considered normal. There are no failures in Hollywood, just momentary blips. As recent history has shown, the process of contention is never easy and when Johnson took over, he could have so easily scrapped the infrastructure he had been given. Instead, he opted to keep what was working and move what wasn’t.
What wasn’t working were the previously horrific contracts signed in the now infamous summer of 2016. Contracts like Timofey Mozgov’s four-year, $64 million deal, which effectively hamstrung the franchise, and Luol Deng’s four-year, $72 million deal, which has practically seen him become irrelevant and simultaneously anger an entire generation of UK-based fans.
But the summer of 2017 saw the franchise swiftly trade D’Angelo Russell, who was the number 2 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, alongside the aforementioned Mozgov. It was the start of the Lakers new infrastructure and gave all of us a glimpse of just how Johnson and Pelinka were going to operate in the forthcoming years: with ruthless efficiency. However, having won this summer’s LeBron James sweepstakes, the Lakers are now forced into a situation where everyone expects them to contend immediately.
Here’s why they shouldn’t.
The LeBron James factor
James took a personal decision this summer to sign with an organization which has missed the playoffs for the past seven seasons. His decision, ultimately, puts his championship pursuit on hiatus, at least for this season. But that’s okay, because now he and his brand become bigger then he could have ever imagined. Landing James at the age of 33 might not hold the same impact as acquiring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his prime, or a young Shaquille O’Neal in 1996, but it’s impact on the NBA as a whole, will be far-reaching.
Whilst living in Los Angeles and playing for the Lakers, James can learn from Magic, expand his existing presence in Hollywood and nurture his family in an environment and city where the possibilities are unsurprisingly endless. His decision to leave Cleveland, his home, did not come easy. In fact, according to Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins, he talked with Kobe Bryant over the phone and invited Magic Johnson to his house in Brentwood, before ultimately deciding upon his future. In joining the second most storied franchise in the NBA, James enters a pantheon of greats and gets his chance to add to his own legacy and recapture Lakers glory of old. And in the modern NBA, where superstars are teaming up left, right and center, who can blame the world’s greatest player for wanting to side himself with one of the worlds elite sporting brands. As Magic always says, this is the Lakers.
This move was as bold as it was brave, as LeBron is effectively sacrificing a year of contention. However, in committing to a four-year $154 million deal, James has given the Lakers all the flexibility and faith they needed to go out this summer and to get this right.
The Kawhi Leonard dilemma
Any Lakers fan who tells you the franchise absolutely must trade for Kawhi this summer is wrong. Also, let’s be honest here, there’s no way Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford’s final legacy with their organization is going to be to trade their former Finals MVP and best player to a team which everyone in San Antonio despises. The price for Leonard would be substantial, and unsurprisingly the Spurs will accept nothing less than a king’s ransom, for the proposed partner of the King.
The Lakers may have to surrender a combination of former first-round picks, including the likes of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart. Along with three future first-round picks. This simply isn’t worth it. Now I know it’s Kawhi Leonard, but given how vocal and unusual Kawhi has been in this scenario, any further disintegration in Texas would surely only benefit the purple and gold and increase the chances of signing Kawhi in free agency next summer. All of which would be achieved without committing several young talented players, who could become significant role players in a Kawhi/LeBron partnership in 2019-20.
Basically, Johnson doesn’t have to rush this. The Boston Celtics are not going to attain Kawhi, the Los Angeles Clippers don’t have anything the Spurs want and the Philadelphia 76ers, just like the Lakers, would have to give up too much. The Lakers future does not rest on this trade and, in fact, you could search the league for other potential deals which the Lakers could make, for significantly less loss. Perhaps Damian Lillard in Portland, or even the apparently disgruntled Jimmy Butler might be acquired for far less.
It’s obvious to say that the Lakers are far from title contention. However, with Johnson at the helm and LeBron James in for the long-haul, exceptionalism will be expected and yet it will never be rushed.
“We’ve been strategizing for months about this,” Johnson said to ESPN in June.
“This summer and next summer. That’s it. If I can’t deliver I’m going to step down myself. [Jeanie Buss] won’t have to fire me, I’ll step away from it because I can’t do this job”.
It’s hard to describe what the James era in Los Angeles will look like and whether or not the King will rightfully earn a place in the rafters alongside Lakers greats. However, we do know one thing: one day he’ll join those former Lakers greats in the Hall of Fame.
Featured photo – via Getty Images / NBAE / Double Clutch illustration