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Lakers Rumors: Front office shifting focus to 2019 free agency

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The Lakers are starting to look ahead to the summer of 2019.

NBA: Preseason-Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Lakers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Lakers have been on a warpath to the summer of 2018, with reports indicating the front office has been fully committed to the pursuit of two superstars in free agency. The NBA trade deadline is two days away, and suddenly, the tune around the Lakers is changing pitch.

Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are being more “realistic” about whether they’ll land their superstar(s) this come July, beginning to shift their focus to the summer of 2019, according to a report from Adrian Wojnarowski, Bobby Marks and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

If that is indeed the case, it’s a big change of mindset for the Lakers. There’s been no lack of insider-sourced reporting on the front office pining for a chance to land Paul George and hold court with LeBron James, but it appears the confidence in that department has taken a hit.

It’s also sensible that the front office is creating contingency plans, which is also something they’ve been clear about. Pelinka has been waving the “we have options” flag for quite some time, but that kind of language doesn’t make mass-media headlines or catch attention.

“We can pivot and say ‘hey this cap flexibility gives us a chance to grow our core and sign our own free agents,’ but the great thing is that whatever direction we go, we have this promising young group,” Pelinka said just a few weeks ago during his Connect With... segment on Spectrum SportsNet just a few weeks ago.

“You’ve gotta stay the course, you’ve gotta be patient, you’ve gotta let it grow, and if the right free agents come along that can help foster that, we’ll go for it. Or we’ll use it to re-sign our own guys.”

One of the reasons the Lakers are beginning to rethink their approach in the next few months — aside from the obvious chance that they strikeout just as the previous summers have gone — is the improved play in recent weeks. The Lakers have won 10 of their last 14 games, despite Lonzo Ball being sidelined with an MCL sprain.

That winning streak has been powered by Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, who’ve stepped up in the absence of the Lakers’ franchise point guard. Randle has averaged 16.4 points, 9 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game over the last 14 games, while Clarkson is (also) putting in 16.4 points per game. The duo is tied in leading the team in scoring in that stretch.

They’re also tied in being the most-likely Lakers to be traded before the deadline, should the front office make a move. That sentiment has been changing internally in LA, according to ESPN’s report, and the uptick in play has “played a part” in that. Sources indicate that there’s a “50-50 at best” chance that the Lakers make a “meaningful trade” that includes either player.

That’s not for lack of trying, either. The Lakers have listened to offers for both Randle and Clarkson that include first-or-second round draft picks, but the deals they’ve had on the table don’t offer a chance to “save significant cap space for the future,” according to ESPN.

This could mean we’ll be seeing more of the same from the Lakers over the next few months, and that a future with Randle is still very-much in the cards. LA has the salary space to retain Julius, and if their intentions truly are shifting toward 2019, retaining him as a restricted free agent makes sense.

Or, this could all be a leverage play by LA after what appeared to be massive transparency about their need to shed salary and shuffle assets for their 2018 free agency run. It’s hard to trade players when the 29 other teams in the league have that leverage in mind.

Deciphering what all of this means — or perhaps doesn’t mean — is complicated, but what happens at the trade deadline is the first big piece of the puzzle for the Lakers. Then, a chance to shuffle the deck around the NBA Draft in June, and the opening of free agency on July 1.

Never a dull day.