The Lakers received a gift from the lottery gods Tuesday when they jumped up to the fourth pick in the draft despite having the 11th-best odds. The improved draft position, in addition to being a feather in the cap for NBA draft reform, gives Los Angeles a better asset, and as Silver Screen & Roll outlined earlier this week, that provides the Lakers with more options heading into the offseason.
The most obvious of those choices is simply having the ability to draft a better player with the No. 4 pick to add to the team’s young core. As ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported a few days ago, the team is trying to reset its star-gazing priorities from last year and get back to developing its players.
That’s a perfectly fine ideal to have, but it doesn’t hold a ton of water with the current iteration of the Los Angeles Lakers.
If the Lakers weren’t on a strict timeline for contention, they would be over the moon about adding another young player to their exciting core. The team could focus on the “next steps” that Alex Regla put forth last week, work in another high-upside piece from the draft, and build organically. Last year, each of the core four (Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart) had a positive point differential, giving the front office a strong foundation to work with as it rebuilds much of the roster.
But the Lakers have LeBron James. The fact remains that this is LeBron’s team, and as long as he is here, Los Angeles has an obligation to LeBron to maximize what remains of his basketball prime. Otherwise, this situation could get fairly uncomfortable.
It doesn’t really matter if the Lakers hired Frank Vogel head coach against the purported wishes of LeBron James, and insisted on the inclusion of an assistant coach for the expressed purpose of player development. It doesn’t really matter that they could draft another promising young player. L.A. and LeBron tried to build methodically last year. That didn’t work, and it’s full steam ahead back to the playoffs, and beyond, this season.
That’s why it makes sense to explore using the fourth pick as a possible trade chip. Rob Pelinka has been saying the right things about the team considering all possibilities to maintain leverage around the league, but even though some rookies contribute right away, the Lakers would do better with a player who has proven playoff experience.
Throughout the 2010s, the one irrefutable aspect of the Lakers organization has been its willingness to take care of its stars. Kobe Bryant was gifted a mammoth extension following his Achilles tear that hamstrung the team for two full seasons. His agent became the general manager of the team, and Kobe still has Jeanie Buss’s ear.
When James came to Los Angeles, the thought was that the team would continue to cater to James’ whims. That theoretically went too far last offseason when the Lakers tried to reduce James’ offensive load on the basketball court, loaded up with playmakers, and ran those decisions by LeBron given that a number of the players had frisky histories with him in the past.
We’re seeing a bit of a recalibration this summer. Los Angeles is starting to reject the GM LeBron influence this summer, to the point where James made it known that he was not part of the head coaching search. The front office is apparently concerned with the perception that James and his Klutch Sports camp are exerting outsized influence over the organization (which is rich considering the team signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope specifically to build a relationship with the agency).
And now the Lakers, or at least reporters close to the team, are paying lip service to the idea that they aren’t concerned with a LeBron James timetable and want to build the roster as if 2018-19 never happened. Maybe the franchise never really wanted LeBron in the first place.
The front office may be in disarray, and it’s unclear who is setting the priorities or wielding the authority, but this much is clear: The time for embracing a youth movement ended July 1, 2018. Whether it was the promise of the young core, or the fact that this team resides in Los Angeles, the Lakers got LeBron. They can’t keep him happy by slow-playing their talent. Magic Johnson and Pelinka understood that during the regular season when the team offered the farm for Anthony Davis and eventually cashed in smaller assets for Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala.
The execution may have been flawed, but the premise was correct. The biggest star in the game dons the purple and gold, and the Lakers have to figure out how to construct a basketball team around him that fits his skills and needs. They can’t saddle James with a bunch of kids and expect everyone to just figure it out.