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Landing a superstar and revisiting the Lakers’ mystique in 2018

Analysts and voices around the NBA have been dancing the Lakers’ grave for years. Will the purple and gold finally turn that around this summer?

NBA: New York Knicks at Los Angeles Lakers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

If you want to see a basketball analyst fire up the hot take cannon, just ask them if the Los Angeles Lakers are still a marquee free agent destination. Over the last few years, the Lakers rapidly descended from back-to-back championships to a Western conference bottom feeder, anchored by an injury prone Kobe Bryant that struggled to face his basketball mortality and the collateral damage of the Steve Nash-Dwight Howard failure. As a result, the Lakers repeatedly failed to recruit a top flight free agent or reload with young talent.

Smelling blood in the water, sportswriters spent thousands of words (sometimes gleefully) discussing how the Laker mystique has all but evaporated, asserting that the missed swings in free agency show a purple and gold squad doomed to a permanent second class status. There’s no question that the dynamics of the league have changed since Kobe forced his way onto the Lakers, but it’s also not fair to extrapolate the Lakers future performance based on a few summers.

As a reminder, the Lakers built their last championship core the old fashioned way – flipping contracts in trades (Kwame Brown to Pau Gasol), and building up depth using the mid-level exception (hello, Metta World Peace!) without salary cap ramifications. They made some shrewd decisions, but were also able to leverage their local market and financial wealth to their advantage. In 2009-10, they had the highest payroll in the league at $91 million, $21 million more than the average team and nearly double the salary of the spendthrift Memphis Grizzlies. Enter the new CBA.

Owners successfully compressed the salary cap picture, creating both a real floor and punitive ceiling. For teams consistently over the cap, the repeater tax is so costly that even the deep pockets of the Silicon Valley-backed Golden State Warriors may be forced to sacrifice key pieces of their core for financial considerations. Team building became much more complicated and required playing chess several moves (and summers) ahead, with cap space and young talent on favorable contracts becoming a team’s greatest asset.

At the same time, technology and the expansion of NBA League Pass democratized marketing, making it possible for someone like Kevin Durant to be one of the game’s biggest stars despite living in one of its smallest markets. The gap may have closed, but it’s still not equal — Giannis Antetokounmpo deserves way more attention that he gets and the discrepancy is 100 percent the result of playing in Milwaukee.

The Lakers were slow to adapt to this new world order, doubling down on Kobe’s twilight with a much maligned $50 million contract and hoping they were only a few tweaks from a return to prominence. A series of uninspired moves showed that Jim Buss was not only out of touch, but desperate to win now and betting his job on it.

Dallas Mavericks v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Instead of committing to youth and development, the Lakers went for retread by hiring Mike Brown and bringing in washed up veterans like Carlos Boozer. After years of unsuccessful trade attempts, Pau Gasol walked away as a free agent, netting nothing in return. Ignoring young talent, the purple and gold didn’t see a single first-round pick suit up between Javaris Crittenton in 2007 and Julius Randle in 2014.

At the same time, the nature of free agency and stardom changed in the NBA. Superstars were subverting the CBA by banding together, a la the Heatles, and taking discounts to win in a league where players famously always chose the money. Legacy became the forefront of player decision-making, buoyed by modern sports talk evolving to mercilessly emphasize titles as the trump card in every debate. Ring chasing, once reserved for vets at the end of their career, became a consideration for a top-five player in their prime like KD, who had been one game away from the NBA Finals with Russell Westbrook. In this environment, the Lakers failed to attract top talent.

There is a bit of chicken and egg here — was it that the promise of wearing the fabled Laker uniform or that the Lakers had always been consistently good enough to attract top talent? As a reminder, Shaq came over after a 53-29 season under Del Harris, not a tank job. Regardless, the post-Jerry Buss Lakers were not up to the task. Aside from over-committing to an aging superstar, the Lakers neither offered the young talent to grow with or the veterans to win now, table stakes in modern free agency. Kupchak was too by the book and refused to reach out prior to midnight free agency deadlines while the rest of the sport colluded with reckless abandon. It is an understatement to say that Jim Buss lacked the gravitas of his father.

And, yes, they still got the meetings — KD may have famously spurned the Lakers, but the Lakers and New York Knicks have still been popular stops on the free agent dance card the last few years because of their brand, sticking out among teams in contention. What is more worrying is how the Lakers ran meetings like their LaMarcus Aldridge pitch, failing to adequately focus on the basketball side of things and embarrassingly asking for a second meeting to rectify.

It is fair to say that the Lakers failed to woo LeBron James, KD, LaMarcus, or any other big ticket free agent over the last few years. The big takeaway should not be that the Lakers have lost all of the advantages of their market or their history — those still matter — but that they are not enough to override a bad management team or weak supporting cast. Not to pick on Milwaukee, but Giannis is on its roster and how many free agency rumors have involved the Milwaukee Bucks?

Luckily, the Lakers have done a lot of things the last few years to rebound. They are still hamstrung by the Deng contract, one of the last desperate acts of the Jim Buss era, but have a clear pathway to two max contracts this summer. After years of recklessly discarding first rounders, the Lakers have drafted well and assembled a collection of young talent, although there is definitely a room for growth and cohesion on the court.

The Lakers have treated vets well – releasing Andrew Bogut to sign elsewhere, trading Lou Williams to a contender — and even that Kobe contract shows loyalty in a meaningful way. The NBA has a long memory and there’s a reason that agents have avoided the Philadelphia 76ers like the plague or why the Miami Heat failing to pay Dwyane Wade after years of team friendly deals sent shockwaves through the league.

Perhaps most importantly, the Lakers have upgraded their management team in a big way. They have replaced Jim Buss with Magic Freaking Johnson, who can sit across the table and talk about championship pedigree with potential free agents. Instead of Kupchak, who had served the Lakers admirably for years but was perhaps not aging well, they have Rob Pelinka, a slick and well-connected former agent. The Mike Brown, Mike D’Antoni and Byron Scott years have been replaced by Luke Walton, a young coach with a bright future. They have an appealing run-and-gun playing style on the court.

As the Lakers have started to turn the ship, they suddenly have a realistic shot at making a splash by bringing in several All-Star caliber players this offseason. Rumors are bountiful as Paul George has been transparent about his interest in LA and LeBron is rumored to be taking a look around this summer as well. Only time will tell, but the Lakers have a bright future and appear to be poised for free agent success once again.

Maybe the famed Laker mystique isn’t in such bad shape after all.

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