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Lakers confident they’re on path to starlit future following trade deadline

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Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka believe they’ve put the Lakers on the path they need to be on to reach for the stars.

LA Clippers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers traded Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to the Cleveland Cavaliers, waiting until the final hours before the deadline to make the move that sends away two fan favorites. It’s something akin to the feeling of the end of an era, and that’s something the Lakers front office hope this trade indicates in a more positive way for the franchise.

Clarkson, the Lakers’ 2014 NBA Draft diamond-in-the-rough guard, has been . Nance Jr. is clearly beloved by the franchise and his teammates, and has put together one of the sickest poster collections in the league since being drafted 27th in the 2015 NBA Draft. Their path has led them to The Land, joining LeBron James for a playoff run as he prepares for his next big career decision.

The Lakers’ path is a march forward to free agency, creating cap salary cap space they needed to make two major splashes.

“This was an essential step for us to get a playoff team and a championship-caliber team back to the Lakers, which is the sole goal Earvin and I have working together,” Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka told media gathered for the team’s post-deadline press conference.

The Lakers can now free up approximately $69 million in salary cap space in the summer of 2018, should they let Julius Randle walk and use the stretch provision on Luol Deng. They also have the flexibility to consider re-signing Randle, and still could bring in a star free agent this summer.

“We have a very clear belief in what we want to accomplish, and let’s face it, in this league you can’t have an elite team if you don’t have the elite players,” Pelinka said, throwing a breezy lob up to his front-office running mate.

“Or we’ll stay where we are, and I don’t want to stay where we are. I don’t want to be on the outside of the playoffs looking in. We have to take another step. This move allows us to position ourselves to hopefully take that next step,” Magic Johnson said, picking up right where Pelinka left off to slam it home.

The flexibility the Lakers now have, loaded with expiring and rookie scale contracts, is something Pelinka believes is the “healthiest” in the entire NBA going forward. That flexibility is something Magic and Pelinka both stressed throughout the press conference, noting they could do any number of things with the mostly-clean slate they’re working with.

It came at a cost, of course. Parting ways with Nance Jr., who showed up at the training facility shortly after the news broke to say goodbye to his teammates, is painful. Shipping Clarkson off after his stellar play during the Lakers’ strong run over the last 15 games isn’t easy, either. That’s why Pelinka described the moment as “bittersweet” and Magic heaped praise on both players any chance he could.

Ultimately, though, it was the move they felt needed to happen to grow as a franchise.

“As we all know, if you’re gonna get something great, you gotta give up something great, right? So it was hard for us to give up our two young players, but I don’t want to stay in 11th place, and I don’t want this organization to stay there. So we have to make moves to be able to put us in the playoffs, in position to sign great free agents one day,” Johnson said.

Magic brought empathy to the table while Pelinka brought his usual metaphoricals along with him to the podium, comparing the Lakers’ path to completion to the construction of their brand new UCLA Health Training Center.

“This building that we’re in right now, there’s stages of it in the construction to get and build something beautiful. Sometimes you have to tear down a corner, or you have to redo the kitchen in the remodel on the house, and that can be hard when you’re doing it, but the end product is something that’s great, just like this training center that you’re in. It took years to build,” Pelinka said.

As for reports that the Lakers are shifting their attention to the summer of 2019, Pelinka shut down that notion. He also noted that it’s not all-or-nothing no matter which way the cookie crumbles, with the next two summers both bringing great opportunities for the franchise to make their big moves.

“That’s not accurate,” Pelinka said when asked for his thoughts on the ESPN report. “I think what’s accurate is that we have the ability to look at both. In addition to all the other things I said, it’s not either 2019 or 2018, it could be one in each year if we wanted it to be, two in ‘18, two in ‘19, or just sticking with our young core growing these guys.

“We’ll have many things to look at, and we’ll make those decisions when they come.”

Pelinka may have a very this-or-that approach, but Magic couldn’t contain his beaming optimism about what the future holds for the franchise he not only leads, but loves.

“Wouldn’t have made the move if I wasn’t confident,” Johnson said when asked if he believed stars were on their way to LA. “We have got to take the next step, and I like our core, I love the way Julius is playing right now. This is the best I’ve ever seen him play, and we want to see him continue to do that, but also like Rob already explained the other guys have been playing great.

“But we’re still on the outside looking in. No matter how good we’ve been playing, we’re not in the playoffs, we’re not one of the Top-8 teams in the West, and that’s just the bottom line. I don’t want to stay in this position, I want to have us be in the playoffs, and the only path to that is to add to the roster we already have.”

The cost of arriving at that point continues piling up, with Clarkson and Nance Jr. joining D’Angelo Russell on the chopping block, but Magic and Pelinka believe it to be a necessary sacrifice. That could be the truth, or it could be a swing-and-a-miss, but there’s no question that the franchise is now in a better position to take that big swing in July.

“We now are in that position as the Lakers, we weren’t before the deal we made. And those opportunities will come, we know that,” Pelinka said, winding up his own confidence. “This is the platform that players want to be on in Los Angeles, and now we’re poised to wait for those opportunities to come and seize the right one for the franchise.”

*All quotes transcribed via Periscope