The front office duo of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka got off to a good start in their first year as Lakers brass through a combination of trades and the draft. A rebuilding team that was bereft of assets and cap space gradually acquired both, and the Lakers were in a strong position heading into the 2018 offseason.
Once LeBron James came to Los Angeles, the role of the front office changed dramatically. The strategy required to rebuild a team from the ground up is significantly different than assembling a contender around one of the greatest players in the world.
There have been plenty of critiques about how the Lakers built their roster over the summer, and the struggles of this season have legitimized several of those concerns.
As a result, Magic and Pelinka spent most of this trade deadline trying to clean up their mistakes. The manner in which they did so does not inspire a great deal of hope for how the team will handle the rest of James’ tenure in Los Angeles.
The first problem of the offseason was Magic and Pelinka’s inability to acquire a second star. That forced them to go big-game hunting during the regular season, despite their public announcements that they would build the team naturally and not sacrifice youth at the altar of mediocrity.
It seemed like the stars were aligning (pun intended) for the Lakers when Anthony Davis expressed his desire for a trade. But despite Davis getting fined for that trade request adding to the feel that he was destined for Los Angeles, from the minute the front office began its pursuit of the superstar Pelican, nothing felt quite right.
Somehow, the Lakers entered that negotiation acting like they had the upper hand when New Orleans had Davis. They not only were unable to properly gauge the Pelicans’ interest in what they had to offer, but they also antagonized their entire roster in the process. The reporting also suggests a lack of good faith between both parties, amplified by Rich Paul having interests on both sides, and doesn’t bode well for a deal to occur in the future.
The second mistake of the offseason was how the front office picked players to complement James — namely, failing to sign enough shooters to space the floor. Los Angeles is the worst free-throw shooting team in the league, and the second-worst from beyond the arc, which has resulted in a bottom-10 offense.
The front office sold this playmaking around James as a way to zig where others have zagged, to lessen James’ burden and try something new after James and shooters had lost the last two NBA Finals. This trade deadline demonstrates an acknowledgement that said strategy was a failure, and as a result, the Lakers were forced to expend resources to acquire shooting at the deadline.
Their trade to acquire Reggie Bullock for Svi Mykhailiuk and a 2021 second-round pick seemed to be a reasonable valuation for all parties, but when New Orleans asks for four second-rounders for Davis in July, it would be nice to have a fuller war chest. The subsequent trade to acquire Mike Muscala from the Clippers for Ivica Zubac and Michael Beasley reads more like an overpay.
Zubac has made great strides in his third season in the NBA, most memorably playing well as the starting center in a Christmas Day win over the Warriors (that literally feels like the last day any Lakers fan was happy this season). He has scored efficiently, moved better on defense than expected and was one of the few good free-throw shooters on the roster.
It was only a few weeks ago that Zubac was balling out against the Thunder on national television and being discussed among Western Conference scouts as an intriguing piece in trade talks. To move on from Zubac for a piece as middling as Muscala suggests a misunderstanding of how good the Croatian center has been for Los Angeles, and the fact that his value was at its highest now. Zubac was part of an offer for Davis just a few days ago, and just got traded for a player who was deemed expendable by the 76ers.
This continues a pattern of the front office devaluing the Lakers’ young assets: using D’Angelo Russell as a carrot for a salary dump, allowing Julius Randle to walk for nothing, and waiving Thomas Bryant. It’s hard to convincingly put together a compelling superstar trade offer built around the team’s young players when management clearly demonstrates that it has so little interest in them.
Then again, the time for developing young players went out the window when James came on board. The team has decided that it needs to make moves to improve the roster now, even if that comes at the cost of younger players with more upside. The same front office that showed no ability to pivot once Paul George was unavailable in July has finally realized the error in their ways. But unlike when they traded Lou Williams two years ago, or Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. last season, the Lakers didn’t win these trades, especially not the deal with the Clippers.
There is nothing wrong with course correcting and trying to build a better team, one that is a more natural fit with James. However, Wes Matthews and Wayne Ellington were available as buyout candidates, and Los Angeles doesn’t seem to be the favorite for either player. The Clippers acquired Garrett Temple, another rumored Lakers target, for no future cost. There was value to be gained at this deadline, but either because the front office was so focused on Davis or simply not good enough, L.A. missed out.
As the Lakers wait to make their big move, the deals they make on the margins will go a long way to determining the overall health and flexibility of the franchise. Even if Los Angeles is a slightly more coherent basketball team today than two days ago, the team sacrificed more than they should have to get there. That’s not a great spot to be in, and it may hurt their ability to reach their ultimate goal of winning a championship.