I’ve had a gnawing feeling the last few years about the Lakers.
Don’t get me wrong, I subscribe to Lakers exceptionalism as much as the next fan. But in the years since Dr. Jerry Buss’ passing, I’ve wondered if the franchise could ever recapture the excellence that marked his tenure.
Were the past five years merely the natural fall from grace for a team that had experienced incredible sustained success, or did they represent a changing of the guard, a sign that what was the special about the Lakers was just gone?
It has taken a long time, but that gnawing feeling is slowly, mercifully, starting to erode.
As we head into the official start of the offseason, one that could be the most pivotal summer in recent memory (stop me if you’ve heard that before), Laker fans should feel confidence in the direction of the front office. The tandem of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka has injected promise back into the team’s future.
Let’s consider the LiAngelo Ball workout this past Tuesday. The saga of Lonzo’s little brother had the potential to be a public relations disaster if LaVar Ball felt that Los Angeles did not fairly evaluate his middle son – despite the overwhelming sentiment among those in the know that LiAngelo did not warrant any real consideration as a draft pick.
Nevertheless, the team got ahead of the situation, brought LiAngelo in for a workout, and let basketball dictate the circumstances.
Now that Ball has proven what he is and is not capable of on a basketball court, the Lakers can carry on with their draft process without fear of a rebuttal from the Ball-father. The front office managed this in the simplest way possible, and if it seems like I’m giving them plaudits for an obvious out, think about how often the previous group in charge bungled even the most basic decisions.
This past week has also brought to light the excellent job the front office has done with its transactions. Time will tell if the team erred in not drafting Jayson Tatum (I refuse to entertain the Donovan Mitchell debate – it’s almost impossible for a player to be drafted 10 slots ahead of his mock position), but the trade deadline deal that netted a first-round pick and cap space in exchange for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. is clearly a home run. Given the Lakers’ plans to presumably add a ball-dominant player to their roster, the postseason has borne out the fact that Clarkson is ill-suited, to say the least, to be a complementary player in that situation.
The loss of Nance may have manifested itself in Los Angeles’ declining defense after the trade deadline, as the team’s defensive rating jumped from 104.6 to 106.8 (per NBA.com), but there’s a great deal of noise in late-season stats and a certain other point guard the team received in exchange played a role. Most importantly, it’s become evident with Clarkson that the Lakers were able to shed dead salary, and at a lower cost than it took to rid the books of Timofey Mozgov’s onerous deal the previous offseason.
Finally, the recent playoff games have validated, at least to me, Team Maginka’s master plan. To be clear, there is no straight-line path to creating a contender in the modern NBA. Each of the four conference finalists reached that stage in different ways – Golden State nailed the late lottery multiple times, Houston performed some incredible cap gymnastics, Boston sucked the soul out of another franchise, and Cleveland was simply the closest NBA team to Akron, OH.
The only thing they have in common is great players, something the Lakers don’t have, at least not yet.
It’s been painful to see the team strike out year after year in trying to acquire an All-Star, but this is the first try for Johnson and Pelinka, and we can’t hold recent history against them.
The pathway to contention is going to involve some outside help, and my goodness, watching LeBron James in year 15 makes me want to swing for the fences again. There’s no way to watch the playoffs and conclude that teams without superstars can make noise. The Lakers need one, and that’s been the plan for this group since the beginning.
And because this front office has performed not just competently, but skillfully, over the past year, I have a feeling it’s only getting better from here.