For what feels like the first time in years, the Los Angeles Lakers are in a good place. The team who is often associated with their historic lineage of players and nearly unmatched championship success has found themselves floundering in recent seasons as they attempt to recapture the glitz and glamour they used to have in abundance.
When Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka were first introduced as the new faces of the team's basketball operations, they echoed a similar and consistent message — develop the young core and create the financial “flexibility” necessary to be major players in free-agency and return the franchise to prominence.
Through the combination of ping pong balls bouncing in their favor and a polarizing trade that enabled them to shed the necessary salary, the duo are on the cusp of accomplishing what they sought out to do, but their process will be put to the test as the ominous summer that has long been foreshadowed has begun to peek it’s head over the looming horizon.
Now with all that said, the question fans and those with ties to the team must be prepared to possibly face in the near future is—what happens if the team strikes out once again?
Prior to the season, that dreadful proposition would have brought tears of gloom among Lakers’ fans fearful of another failed attempt of reeling in big named talent. Yet, after a surprisingly competitive and entertaining season, a roster now full of talented young players, and a Western Conference suddenly in a state of influx, the hypothetical scenario does not seem as negative as previously imagined.
This season saw the Lakers reach their highest win total since the infamous 2012-13 campaign, and their second consecutive year of increasing their win total by nine games.
However, possibly the most impressive feat among the wins and improved product was the fact that it came mostly on the backs of their young core. The team, who was comprised almost entirely of 20-25 year-olds endeared themselves to the fanbase through their high effort, improved defense, and selfless play.
These characteristics ultimately helped the group to be downright likable during what was another losing season, which is no small accomplishment when taking into account that the franchise has long boasted a championship or bust mentality.
There were constant and genuine signs of corners being turned both on and off the floor in what was the first chance for all parties involved in working alongside one and other. Also noteworthy is the squad’s final record not entirely being indicative of their ability as the team was riddled with injuries all season and resorted to playing unorthodox lineups for substantial chunks of time.
To make matters worse, the injury bug continually hit arguably the team’s two most important players: Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, who missed a combined 53 games this year. Couple that with the aforementioned age of the team, and the missed opportunities and bad luck can’t help but leave one optimistic about what another offseason and a year of experience under their belts can do in terms of improvement as currently constructed.
Now of course adding a star player or two like Paul George and LeBron James this summer to this existing roster would do wonders in expediting the Lakers’ developmental process, but if it does not come into fruition that should not signal the end of a rising trajectory.
The in-house development factor will most likely occur as seen in the leaps made by Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram this season, but there also is the factor of continuity and the benefits it could unearth.
The role of continuity is especially notable in the Lakers’ case as they have seen their young core reshuffled and have continued to add supplementary pieces on the one-year variety, which has made it difficult for the roster and the coaching staff to implement a level of stability.
Now, the Lakers have plenty of Rob Pelinka’s “sacred” cap space, due to their timely transactions and collection of cost-controlled talent.
That’s a good thing, because when the salary cap did not make the expected jump many teams had hoped for when handing out albatross after albatross contracts in 2016 (the Lakers not excluded), the aftershocks helped create an upcoming offseason in which only a handful of teams have the ample room to make a splash.
For the Lakers, cap space has long been assumed to be reserved for those upper-echelon superstars they have so readily thirsted after, but it also could also be used to take advantage of their competition’s financial flubs.
This strategy is one the team has utilized in previous seasons when absorbing the contracts of: Jeremy Lin, Jose Calderon, Corey Brewer, etc, in order to obtain the draft pick considerations that have helped construct the team as it currently sits.
This is admittedly not the sexiest of uses of the Lakers’ financial flexibility but taking on short-term deals in exchange for both future and cost-controlled assets, or “kicking the can down the road,” could work in cohesion with having flexibility once again next summer, in which the team reportedly has “recalibrated” their focus towards.
The corresponding moves that took place during and after 2016 created a rare state of flux in the Western Conference, in which the Lakers reside. There are the few powerhouses that still look to be seemingly uncatchable like Golden State and Houston, but nearly every other city seems to have some level of uncertainty moving forward.
Without going into the nitty gritty of the books for each of the teams, let’s look at just a few notable teams and their immediate avenues of improving their roster (or in many cases, not):
- The Portland Trailblazers, who were just swept out of the first round of the playoffs, need to find ways to both manage their questionable 2016 deals along with the nearly $60 million guaranteed to the duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McColumn in compliance with the cap and luxury tax implications.
- The Minnesota Timberwolves, who were also just knocked out in the first round, have $60 million solely invested in the polarizing trio of: Jeff Teague, Gorgui Dieng, and Andrew Wiggins. The team is also over the cap and must be wary of Jimmy Butler’s possible pending 2019 free-agency.
- The Oklahoma City Thunder’s tumultuous season recently came to an end, and they have not only Paul George’s future to worry about—but Carmelo Anthony’s upcoming near $28 million player-option, Russell Westbrook’s first season past the $30 million plus mark, and little to no assets to circumnavigate the system in further improving their roster.
- Even the NBA’s Old Reliable, the San Antonio Spurs, are not immune to having an uncertain future. The combination of the nationally covered frenzy that is Kawhi Leonard’s status with the team, an aging roster, and nearly every one of their assistant coaches currently interviewing for head-coaching positions elsewhere have all certainly led to raised eyebrows about where Gregg Popovich and the organization go from here.
The point is, the upcoming offseason once felt like a truly franchise-altering moment in time for the purple and gold, one in which they could make up some ground in the Western Conference. IN many senses that still may be the case, but the team also suddenly has multiple viable avenues going forward outside of this summer’s free agency class to fall back on.
For all the billboards and celebrity pleas that may arise, the Lakers must ultimately rely on their young core not only as a selling point to free-agents, but to lead them out of the depths of the possible rejections.
With that notion in mind, this time around simply feels different from years past for the Lakers. Among the players that have now been assembled is a noticeable — and growing — chemistry between them and the fanbase that have created what is almost an undeniable aura of confidence that something good is still waiting around the near corner, regardless of who ultimately signs alongside this young team to bask in it.