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  • The Lakers have come far after years of rebuilding under Magic Johnson and co. With NBA free agency on the horizon and LeBron James available, will LA's patience finally pay off?
By Andrew Sharp
June 26, 2018

Whether they succeed or fail over the next three weeks, the Lakers will be the biggest story of the NBA summer. Success means signing LeBron James (and others) and positioning themselves as the biggest story in basketball for at least the next 12 months. Failure means striking out on LeBron, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard, and either running it back with a young core that probably can't crack the playoffs, or perhaps overpaying Boogie Cousins and bringing back Isaiah Thomas. Whichever direction they go in lieu of LeBron, striking out would make the Lakers the biggest punchline in the league. But is that fair?

At the risk of overthinking some obvious jokes, I think it's worth noting that the Lakers have already been much smarter than they will get credit for this summer. It's easy to paint L.A. management as a group of clumsy rich idiots who think they can buy their way into any room. For a while under Jim Buss, that was accurate in an almost-literal sense. But even as the Lakers go star chasing all over again, that kind of lazy entitlement is not really what's happening anymore.

The Lakers are entering free agency with massive amounts of cap space, targets who make sense, and an urgency that's rooted in reason, not desperation. Regardless of whether they trade for Kawhi or sign LeBron James, this team has already exorcised many of the demons that defined the first half of this decade. And in an era of sports analysis where it's become trendy to praise "trusting the process" regardless of the results, this Lakers process has been basically flawless.

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Start with Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka. Jeannie Buss hired Magic to come be West Coast Pat Riley, and while Magic's Twitter account has successfully convinced an entire generation of internet users that he's something like Basketball Perd Hapley, that public persona is probably misleading. Magic has spent the past several decades parlaying his fame into a business empire that includes everything from movie theaters, to Starbucks franchises, to the L.A. Dodgers. He's much smarter, and probably more ruthless, than he lets on. Which is to say, he's exactly the kind of guy you want running your basketball team.

Alongside Magic, after several years working at a perceived disadvantage while Mitch Kupchak kept his hands clean and refused to deal in back channels, Buss hired a longtime agent who knows how deals get done. That's not to say Pelinka is the right hire because he's spent the past 12 months tampering with the entire league—although there was some of that—but his involvement speaks to the Buss family's heightened understanding of how the current NBA works.

Together, Johnson and Pelinka have nailed moves on the margins—adding Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart, for instance—and made bold plays to preserve cap space and undo mistakes that were supposed to haunt this team into the 2020s. They sold high on D'Angelo Russell and forced Brooklyn to take on Timofey Mozgov's deal. They pounced on a desperate Cavs team and used Larry Nance to offload Jordan Clarkson's deal. They used last summer's excess cap space to offer a balloon payment of $18 million to Klutch Sports client Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Whether that particular move looks brilliant or naive will probably depend on what happens with the most famous Klutch Sports client this summer, but again, the outcome shouldn't be the point. What's important is that currying favor with Rich Paul by paying KCP on a one-year deal cost the Lakers nothing in the long term. It was bold, potentially devious, and obviously smart. (Bonus: We got these incredibly weird Pelinka biblical analogies out of the press conference).

So, will any of this work? Everything will begin and end with LeBron. If he moves West, others will follow. LeBron's commitment could make Paul George's decision easier, although there are recent murmurs that OKC could keep PG. In any case, with or without George, LeBron's presence coupled with Lakers assets immediately puts L.A. in play for any other superstar who becomes available over the next twelve months.

Jason Miller/Getty Images

A skeptic might argue that if a title is the goal, LeBron isn't necessarily a solution. There are reasonable questions about how much longer James can own the NBA, and how much longer it will be worthwhile for teams to mortgage their futures on his behalf. He's stopped playing defense for long stretches of each regular season, and as his game (eventually, theoretically) declines, his presence on the court and in the locker room will be no less domineering. I completely understand if various fanbases around the NBA—like Boston, or exactly 50% of Sixers fans—appreciate those dynamics and decide that the LeBron experience isn't worth it. The calculus is different in L.A., though.

I love Brandon Ingram and will fight anyone who doubts his All-Star potential. The cult of Kyle Kuzma was a genuine highlight of the first half of last season. Julius Randle became a monster over the final three months of the season, and watching him bully half the league was its own highlight of the NBA's second half. I'm not entirely sold on Lonzo Ball's star potential, but he's still intriguing enough to get excited about.

The problem with the Lakers betting on the current nucleus is three-fold. First: all of those players are good, but it's not clear that any of them will be great. Second: while the current nucleus could probably thrive and grow into decent playoff team in the East for the next few years, the Western Conference is more unforgiving. The teams at the top of the West are full of stars who regularly smother young teams before they ever get a chance to breathe the air of a second round playoff series. And speaking of unforgiving: most Lakers fans wouldn't be satisfied with a lovable, overachieving seventh seed.

And look, as a general rule, Lakers fans are completely unhinged from reality. But they're not wrong on this point. This team should not behave like the Grizzlies or Nuggets. Read through the franchise index on basketball reference. Lakers history is staggering. Until 2013, they'd missed the playoffs three times in 37 years. They won 10 titles in that span. This is a team working with the biggest market, the best weather, and anecdotal evidence of illuminati powers that bend the arc of history toward Lakers decadence. Given the built-in advantages, a sixth or seventh seed isn't enough. Nor should it be.

But beyond the grandiosity that has always made the Lakers uniquely ridiculous, it's the first two points that make this summer's approach a no-brainer. The L.A. nucleus is good, not great, and the West is a torture chamber where any team without two All-Stars is irrelevant before the season begins. Faced with the choice between building toward an uncertain future with uneven young players or cashing those chips in for superstars who can instantly level the playing field, it would be insane not to pursue the latter.

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From a distance, chasing LeBron James and Paul George looks like another chapter in the history of desperate Laker power plays. This hacky George recruiting script already fits perfectly next to this photo of Adam Levine in his Lamarcus Aldridge jersey. But the key difference is that George would fit perfectly with several versions of the Lakers future. That was never true of past free agency dreams.

Aldridge would have been amazingly depressing as a centerpiece next to an aging Kobe in L.A. Throwing max money at Carmelo Anthony to play next to Kobe Bryant would have been an all-time low for both players. Had Mitch Kupchak stolen Kevin Durant two summers ago, Durant would have been sharing the floor with D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson. And really, for most of the decade, the Lakers have been looking to cheat the rebuilding process by chasing B-list stars or pitching A-list players on a foundation that didn't exist.  

What's happening this summer is a bit more nuanced. The Lakers haven't skipped any rebuilding steps—thanks in part to those inept recruiting efforts of the past regime—but they might put a twist on conventional wisdom about where this process is supposed to lead. They have dutifully endured the pains of losing and gotten lucky in the lottery. They've scouted well and nailed some picks at the end of the first round. And now that it's time to really win, the Lakers are acknowledging realities that other organizations usually take longer to accept. 

Most top five picks will never make an All-NBA team, and most rebuilding projects end before teams build anything that matters. Everyone understands the importance of building patiently through the draft, but there's a point at which fidelity to that model becomes a disadvantage. 

The Lakers realized it would be smarter to use some of their draft picks to clear cap space for two superstars, not one, while the other young players could still be used to go steal a third. Now they are selling more than a big market and mystique. But they had to trade D'Angelo Russell to get there. They had to embrace wasting one summer's cap space renting KCP to save space for a star to be named later. They had to use one overachieving young player (Larry Nance) to offload the contract of another (Jordan Clarkson). They had to be willing to watch Julius Randle play the best basketball of his career before (maybe) allowing him to walk away for nothing. And they might have to strike out on stars without panicking and spending on players that don't make sense. 

In the end, that last part will be the real test. If Magic and Pelinka miss on LeBron and settle for maxing out an injured Boogie Cousins, they deserve all the same jokes that applied in years past. But until then, the Lakers are in position to do much bigger things. They have come this far thanks to patience, planning, and ruthless ambition—selling high on popular draft picks, cultivating cap-clearing deals that others claimed were impossible, and betting on themselves as they enter an offseason market full of All-NBA talent. 

Not every team can execute that plan, and most small market organizations would never try. But after the past 12 months, the Lakers can do it. Now we see if they will.

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