The Los Angeles Lakers haven’t been a free agent destination for the NBA’s top-tier stars for a long time now. Some of this is easily explainable. The team didn’t have much cap room during Kobe Bryant’s prime, and as he began to decline they were a really bad, lottery-bound team that wasn’t exactly a basketball situation that appeals to the league’s biggest names.
However, those aren’t the only reason’s for the Lakers’ free agency failures, at least according to some people around the league. Ramona Shelburne of ESPN’s feature story on the Lakers in the wake of Magic Johnson’s hiring as an advisor is worth a full read for anyone interested in the inner workings of the team, but one criticism it rehashed that some in the NBA have for the Lakers is their unwillingness to break (or at the very least bend) the rules of the league in order to negotiate with agents sooner (via Shelburne):
Part of the reason the Lakers missed out on those cases is a philosophical decision to prioritize superstar free agents above all else. But another read is that the Lakers aren't moving at the speed NBA business is now being conducted.
Said one player agent, who has dealt with Kupchak on several contracts, "He's the only GM in the league who won't engage at all before 9:01 p.m. [PT] on the first night of free agency. Then when he calls to express interest, there's no stickiness to it."
That speaks to Kupchak's integrity, as contact with an agent or player is considered tampering before the opening of free agency, but it also speaks, according to sources, to a lack of savvy. There are ways of gathering information on free agents without trampling the rules, so that a team doesn't begin the process far behind everyone else.
This isn’t even that new of a criticism, but it’s one that has been leveled with increasing frequency in recent weeks. Adrian Wojnarowski of the Vertical also recently brought up the Lakers’ attempts to follow the intent of the law in a recent video essay:
Is this a legitimate criticism of the current front office? Probably. Even if they’re just trying to play by the rules, or not find creative loopholes around them, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss are still (apparently) putting themselves behind the eight ball by not negotiating before they’re technically allowed to.
Maybe that allows them to feel like they’re doing the right thing, but unfortunately for them if everyone else is breaking or skirting the rules they don’t get bonus points for playing fair. That’s reality, even if it’s also not totally fair.
Whether or not the addition of Magic Johnson in an advisory role or possibly bringing back Jerry West in some capacity can fix things is unknown, however, it’s become increasingly clear that the Lakers may need to adjust their approach. Even if that adjustment means not playing by the rules.