A year ago, the Los Angeles Lakers signed LeBron James and somehow still managed to have a disappointing offseason. Their free agency acquisitions were fruitless, and their draft picks failed to make an impact. The result: Quite possibly one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory, given the expectations going in.
Ah, expectations. They define so much of how we perceive quality and effectiveness. Set expectations low enough and you’ll never let anyone down. This year, given what is going to be expected of the Lakers (fair or not), a lot is riding on their ability to manage margins, something they outright failed at last summer.
The problem for Rob Pelinka is: When you pair LeBron James with newly-acquired Anthony Davis, it’s impossible to temper those expectations. They make up a hefty chunk of the NBA’s top five or six players, and in a sport where only five players are on the court at any time per team, that’s quite the advantage in any game.
Unless, of course, the rest of this offseason is marked with signings like Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley or draftees like Isaac Bonga and Moe Wagner.
Last year, after signing James, Magic Johnson and Pelinka had just over $31 million in cap space to fill between five and seven roster spots, counting the rookies they drafted. Beyond the young core they had at the time, there were at least five spots in the rotation that had to be taken care of.
This year, because of the three players who went out in the Davis trade, the front office will arguably have more to do, with less cap space to do it.
As it stands right now, the only certain rotation players on the roster are Davis, James and Kuzma. Maybe Wagner takes a step forward and edges into that group but for now we’ll have to see that to believe it. Bonga is almost definitely not ready for such a role. So Pelinka (now sans Magic) will have to use the team’s projected $24-32ish million in cap space — depending on when exactly the Davis trade goes down — to sign or trade for anywhere from seven to 10 players, with around eight of which playing in the rotation.
The Lakers do not currently employ a point guard. And while yes, Kuzma technically started at times at shooting guard over the course of last year, he did so out of position, so there are no true shooting guards on the roster right now, either. We’ll say Kuzma and James are the team’s starting forwards and Davis is the starting center, and that leaves two starters and likely five backups that have to be acquired by summer’s end.
And as an aside, Kuzma had better work out, given the faith the Lakers are showing in him.
Let’s say Pelinka opts for the third superstar route. Point guards like Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker make sense offensively (and because they’re really good), but Pelinka would have to find a really good defensive shooting guard to make up for what they, James and Kuzma lack on that end. If it’s a wing (Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler, as examples), Kuzma will likely start out of position again — or come off the bench, should his mamba mentality allow him to — with the team still needing a starting point guard, likely either making the veteran’s minimum or the room exception.
All this is to say that quite a bit of work will have to be done on the margins, stretching dollars as far as they go so as to ensure the other players up and down the roster add to the talents of James, Davis and the third superstar. Oh, and those points about expectations become all the more pertinent if any of those aforementioned stars make Grant Goldberg’s jersey swaps a reality.
WE READY FOR FREE AGENCY— Grant Goldberg (@GrantGoldberg) June 14, 2019
LET'S BUILD pic.twitter.com/K6l88ybKM0
If Pelinka instead spreads the team’s cap space around across the rest of the roster, he’ll arguably have to make the margins work even more effectively, as there won’t be a third star to make up for any collective shortcomings individually.
Superstar or not, in this competitive NBA, margins have to be taken advantage of, and we’re still waiting for the Lakers to show they can do such a thing.
Whichever direction Pelinka takes the team or how he executes that plan specifically is not nearly as important as the general point here, though. One could make the argument considering the lack of other competitive offers on the market that Pelinka was forced to overpay, as David Griffin knew how desperate Pelinka was to make a Davis trade.
Such desperation will have to give way to resolute pragmatism as the rest of the roster comes together, and all the while Pelinka will have the same pressure from an uneasy fan base to build a legitimate contender as he had to land Davis.
Should Pelinka fall into a repeat of last season, he’ll have wasted half of James’ tenure in L.A. and Davis will enter free agency with a bad taste in his mouth. Should Pelinka pull all this off, all those who questioned the bounty he gave up for Davis would have their criticisms quelled resoundingly.
Either way, Pelinka has lofty expectations to live up to, both within the organization and throughout a fan base desperate to root for a quality team. He took care of the big thing, but now the types of smaller moves that the team has struggled with await.