For the sixth consecutive season, the Los Angeles Lakers are expected to miss the NBA playoffs despite the fact that they signed 15-time All-Star and four-time league MVP LeBron James, who hasn’t missed the playoffs since the first “Cars” movie was released.
There have been two “Cars” movies since.
Their underwhelming season can be partially attributed to the number of injuries the Lakers have had to battle through this year, but a lot of the blame should also fall on the front office tandem of president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka. Before we get into the latest thing to blame them for, let’s recap why.
After James inked his four-year, $153.3 million deal with the Lakers this summer, the team had roughly $30 million in cap space to fill out their bench. However, to get to that number, they had to renounce Julius Randle, who had a cap hold of $12.4 million, and Thomas Bryant, who had a non-guaranteed contract worth $1.38 million.
With both Bryant and Randle gone, many assumed the Lakers were going to bring back Brook Lopez, who they traded D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov for in 2017. Lopez wasn’t the All-Star caliber center he was in Brooklyn for the Lakers, but he was productive in his limited role and was a theoretical perfect fit next to James, who has always thrived playing alongside floor-spacing bigs.
The Lakers decided to go in a different direction, though, and Lopez signed a one-year contract with the Milwaukee Bucks for the bi-annual exception. The front office’s decision to let both Lopez and Randle has been criticized for the majority of the season and unfortunately, their reasoning behind doing it doesn’t help their case.
During an appearance on ESPN LA’s “Mason and Ireland,” Ramona Shelburne of ESPN said that the Lakers let Lopez walk because they preferred Michael Beasley, who they signed to a one-year, $3.5 million contract in July, as their... backup five? (h/t Reddit user LonzoBBBall):
“They let Brook Lopez go, the idea being they chose Michael Beasley over him -- which to me is fairly unforgivable -- because they had already lost Julius Randle, and they felt that Beasley had a similar skillset to be a small-ball five as Julius Randle did last year when he was a small-ball five with that second unit and sometimes with the first. So they felt like Beasley’s skillset would replace (that).”
There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s stroll through that one together one last time. Because even if you don’t believe the report — which there is no reason not to, but still — this is a truly awful path of asset management.
The Lakers traded a former No. 2 overall pick and a bad contract for a starting center, and then let said starting center walk in free agency because they viewed Michael Beasley as the replacement for Julius Randle, a 23-year-old restricted free agent who was coming off a career year for the team that drafted him with the No. 7 overall pick in 2014.
Having a hard time following that logic? Don’t worry, it gets better.
Halfway through the season, the Lakers decided that they needed to trade Beasley, who was shipped out along with their starting center, Ivica Zubac, for a floor-spacing big man on an expiring contract in Mike Muscala. Do you see it? Do you see the irony?
For those keeping track, here’s how those moves have worked out for all of the parties involved:
- D’Angelo Russell was named an All-Star in February for leading the playoff-bound Brooklyn Nets in scoring with 20.3 points per game.
- Julius Randle is having a career year with the New Orleans Pelicans, averaging 20.8 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game. He is expected to decline his $9 million player option this summer and test unrestricted free agency.
- Brook Lopez is the starting center for the Bucks, who currently hold the best record in the NBA. Lopez is ranked 14th in the league in total 3-pointers made this season and third in total blocks.
- Ivica Zubac is the starting center for the playoff-bound Clippers and is ranked fifth on the team in net rating (+6). He is set to hit restricted free agency this summer.
- After being waived by the LA Clippers in February, Michael Beasley agreed to a lucrative contract with the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the Chinese Basketball Association.
- Mike Muscala has played 74 total minutes for the Lakers. During that time, he’s averaged 2.8 points per game on 30.4 percent shooting from the field, including 27.8 percent shooting from behind the arc.
- The Lakers are seven games back of the eighth seed in the Western Conference five games below a .500 record. They’re expected to have a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, and they will likely target a center with that pick.
So to recap: The Lakers essentially dumped four draft picks — including two lottery picks — to end up with maybe a little over 100 minutes of Mike Muscala, cap space they have yet to capitalize on (they could have signed LeBron regardless, the Russell trade freed up a second max slot) and Josh Hart (the Nets have all-but-said they would not have taken Kyle Kuzma, and the Lakers could have gotten him without trading Russell).
That’s somewhat an oversimplification, but no matter how you slice it, that is horrendous asset management, even if they can add a second star in free agency.
All caught up? Great. Now, ask yourself where the problems started for the Lakers this season. If you’ve been following along, it shouldn’t take that long to answer.