The week before this was one of the biggest, if not THE biggest of the year, in terms of content quantity. Magic Johnson stepped down from his position with the Lakers. The NBA playoffs started. The Masters golf tournament was in action. Game of Thrones’ final season began. It was a whirlwind of preparation during the week creating substance to be discussed once the weekend’s events transpired. It’s funny because, for a time in our society where American politics and democracy are rallying cries for many, it was instead a weekend of kings.
The King of L.A. (not canonical by any means), Magic Johnson, resigned leaving an important spot to fill for the Lakers. Can they change course and, more importantly, discontinue the history of the last half decade? The King of Golf (not an actual nickname, but definitely undisputed), Tiger Woods, captured his fifth Masters win in an emotional, uniting, unforgettable moment. Is he back on top for good? The King of the North, rightful Heir to the Throne (definitely canonical), Jon Snow, is doing everything he can to protect the realm from the Army of the Dead. Will the living triumph, or will what’s dead never die?
It’s almost a perfect Royal weekend in American pop culture, save one noticeable absence; The King, LeBron James.
The Lakers finished last season 35-47. They added the best player on the planet, have a core of promising young players, they signed vets and role players to manageable, possibly tradeable, one-year contracts, and looked poised to contend in the West. They finished this season at 37-45. It was a massive disappointment.
Truthfully though, getting rid of Magic may be the first step towards real success for the Lakers. He’s a brilliant businessman and a phenomenal basketball player, but it’s still up for debate if an NBA front office is his scene.
Here is a woefully incomplete list of the Lakers’ mishaps since 2016:
- Trading Deangelo Russell (who was an all-star this season) and blaming it on his maturity level. Russell was 20 when he got traded.
- Constructing a roster built around “toughness” in an era where more three pointers are being attempted than ever before and fouls favor the offense more than ever.
- Letting Rich Paul (the agent of both LeBron James and Anthony Davis) have such a public influence and voice that turned the potential trade with New Orleans into the worst case scenario for the Lakers.
- Michael Beasley tried to enter the game wearing the wrong shorts.
- This is not their fault, but their biggest asset other than LeBron has a serious blood disorder and it’s uncertain how his basketball future will be affected by it.
All this to say, the Lakers missing the playoffs in a year with heightened expectations may be a bigger deal than people tend to think.
Free Agency Obstacles
LeBron is getting older and he showed it by suffering the worst injury of his career. The Lakers publicly willing to gut their team for Anthony Davis can’t be for good team chemistry. And maybe the most important factor in all of this is that it’s a race against the clock.
The Lakers want to (and frankly need to) make a splash this summer. So here are their options.
The story of the Lakers the past couple of seasons has been free agent signings, or the lack thereof. The two most talked about were probably Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Both are natives of L.A. and both are early into huge contracts with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
This summer’s main targets seem to be Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard.
KD’s free agency feels like it’s been hanging over Golden State for the better part of two years.
While KD and LeBron would be a scary combination, most people around the league (sports writers, podcasters, media people, etc.) feel that the Knicks are Durant’s preferred destination. He’s won three titles already in four years and is going for his fourth. To really make an impact on his legacy wouldn’t it mean more to revive the Knicks franchise than following LeBron to L.A.? If he’s truly concerned about being considered one of the greats then that seems like a much better road map than only winning titles because he joined the best team in 25 years with Golden State and then joining the best player in 25 years with LeBron. Don’t count on “The Servant” in L.A. anytime soon.
Kawhi, as we’ve seen, is impossible to understand from the public eye.
That being said, the same winds that have ushered “KD to the Knicks” rumors have also murmured “Kawhi to the Clippers”. Starting with Kyrie in Cleveland and then evidenced by Russ and PG staying in OKC, the idea that players don’t want to play with LeBron might have legs. And skill-wise, Durant and Kawhi are the only guys in recent memory who have contended with him. Kawhi even said that L.A. was a preferred destination of his when he wanted out of San Antonio, even though he never really specified with which franchise. Kawhi, quietly but clearly, has seemed to enjoy his role as the alpha in both Toronto and San Antonio. Kawhi is probably out on playing second fiddle to LeBron.
That leaves Klay. As one of the Splash Brothers, his and Steph Curry’s otherworldly shooting abilities birthed the NBA franchise of the decade.
There are three stark (not from Winterfell) reasons that Klay would stay with the Warriors. The first is that if KD leaves they can afford to pay him more than anybody else. The second is that for as long as he’s been there they have been good. It’s not a risky bet to say that, Durant or no Durant, the Warriors will be title contenders again next season. And third, he loves Golden State and they love him right back. KD was probably the most skilled player on the team the past couple of seasons but he was never the most liked. He wasn’t even the second most liked and that kills him. It’s always been Klay and Steph, and it always will be.
Trade Package Obstacles
That leaves trades.
The biggest trade target STILL is Anthony Davis.
The problem is, every single team is going to want him and the Lakers don’t have all that much to offer.
Their best offer already got rejected by the Pelicans and at that point it looked even better than it does now. Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball are now both hurt and a few other teams can match or surpass the package that L.A. can put together.
The Celtics’ Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have been up and down this year, but there is no doubt that they’re promising players. They have to be worth more than Ball and Ingram just because they’re healthy. The Celtics also have a boatload of draft picks to mix and match whichever players and picks they need to, as well as enough depth on their roster, to still have a very solid rotation.
The Clippers have about 10 good role players, three of which and a draft pick would be an enticing offer to float New Orleans’ way. They could be the highest bidder in this thing, especially if they feel confident in getting Kawhi this summer.
And finally, also in contention for Anthony Davis, is any team that gets the first overall draft pick get to take the most highly touted draft prospect since AD himself; Zion Williamson. At that point, it becomes that teams’ decision on whether or not they want to try and trade that pick and an asset or two or just ride the Zion wave into the future.
(The Lakers actually have a three percent chance at getting that first pick by the way).
LeBron is getting older and signing him wasn’t an experiment. It was a statement. They don’t expect mediocrity.
But now it feels as though this season was wasted and the teams’ ability to put a contending squad around him seems bleaker than Grey Worm’s chances of living through season 8. There’s a roadmap for redemption, and maybe even a championship or two if things go well, but in a much different way than the Lakers have recently been used to, it’s going to take some magic.