The 2019 NBA Draft took place yesterday, and in what will likely become an annual tradition for the Lakers in the foreseeable future, the first round came and went without Los Angeles drafting any players.
The Lakers have made their bed, surrendering their future to maximize the present, specifically LeBron James’ present. That means that while the rest of the league gets excited about the next great young players at this time every year, that is a rite of passage that the Lakers have willingly excused themselves from.
(Yes, I understand that the Lakers still retained some of their own first-round picks. I also think it’s foolish to believe that those picks won’t ultimately be used towards acquiring veterans to play with James and Anthony Davis, once the Lakers can legally trade them under the Stepien rule.)
The thing is, this wasn’t supposed to be how the Lakers built their next championship team. Ever since the summer of 2014, when Kobe Bryant was the only vestige left of the 2009-10 titles, the Lakers have been trumpeting their almighty ‘cap space’ plan. The idea was that the team had so fastidiously kept their books clean (an unintended consequence of the Dwight Howard and Steve Nash trades) that Los Angeles could simultaneously rebuild and also attract free-agent suitors by virtue of being the Lakers.
I always liked the cap space plan during the down years. The front office was selling a slim chance of hope, but that slight possibility was something to hold on to while we watched the young kids develop. Even though there was a lot of turnover on the roster while the Lakers waited for ‘cap space’ to become an honest-to-goodness star, the kids were always there. It was much easier to stomach blown leads and poor execution when it was Jordan Clarkson or D’Angelo Russell making those mistakes down the stretch.
The beauty of the cap space plan was that even once the superstars agreed to sign in Los Angeles, the youngsters could fill in around them. Last summer, losing out on Paul George and signing the Meme Team instead in free agency didn’t even feel like the worst possible outcome; Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma were still around to learn and grow from LeBron while we waited for star No. 2.
But then, the plan changed. As it turns out, the simultaneous cap space/rebuilding philosophy was a hoax. The Lakers don’t rebuild. They don’t even like being associated with rebuilding.
There’s only one path to team building in Los Angeles. Maybe that’s why LeBron James came to the Lakers — it’s something they have in common.
Evidently, one of the consequences of succeeding at the cap space plan was it set into motion a new phase of roster construction. The Lakers don’t believe in a middle ground of having one star — the presence of James on the team necessitates going full steam ahead to surround him with more players on his level, regardless of the casualties.
The Lakers have drafted Julius Randle, Russell, Ingram, and Ball in the lottery since the team last made the postseason. All of them are now gone. They’ve also drafted Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Ivica Zubac, Josh Hart, and Thomas Bryant in the late first or second round since then. All of them are also gone.
On some level, we all knew this, even as the front office deliberately said otherwise. The Lakers tried to fool us when this offseason began by recommitting to their young players, to the point that they almost admitted trying to trade for Davis midseason was a mistake. And yet, the minute Davis became available again, it was out with the young, and in with the old.
The extent to which the team is reinventing itself feels like a disservice to the fans who have invested in the Lakers over the past six years. The Lakers want so badly to cut ties with any player who harkens back to a time of rebuilding that Kyle Kuzma is now the longest-tenured Laker. It’s like everything from Kobe’s Achilles injury until now never happened.
That might be a valid way to achieve success. The Toronto Raptors got rid of Dwane Casey, DeMar DeRozan, and Jonas Valanciunas, among others, en route to winning a title. But the Raptors still had Kyle Lowry, and the trio of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell — all three of whom have spent their entire NBA careers in Toronto. When it was time to make trades to upgrade the team, Masai Ujiri fought to keep Siakam and OG Anunoby. The core of that team resonated with the fans.
The Lakers didn’t fight to keep their young players. When David Griffin picked up the phone, they surrendered everything they had to get Davis. This front office has never treated its young players as anything more than assets to be used in service of building a superteam. It doesn’t feel like any player belongs to the Lakers — other than Kuz, incredibly — in a meaningful way.
There’s no denying that the Lakers will be a fascinating basketball product next season. The duo of James and Davis, no matter who ends up filling out the roster, is incomparable. But the part of fandom that lets you root for the name on the back of the jersey and not just the name on the front, the part that’s inherently irrational but still binds us to people we’ve never met, the part that takes years to fully develop — that will be missing.
There’s a hole in Lakers fandom where the last six years once were. The front office ripped that out, sold it to New Orleans, and is trying to mask it with another shiny superstar. It may work to build a competitive team, but it will take a while until that success no longer feels hollow. Every team in the NBA goes through rebuilding at one point or another, and going through that makes winning all the more enjoyable. It’s too bad the Lakers are trying to remove that part of the process from their story.