With the signing of Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng, the Lakers were being led down an unfamiliar path named mediocrity. Something needed to change.
Jeanie Takes Control
Cruelly, the 2016-2017 season began with a hopeful aspect. In spite of widespread criticism of the front office over the Deng and Mozgov contracts, Ingram and Russell were considered smart choices with high level picks and the scouting department was using lower-level picks to hit on solid bench players like Nance and Ivica Zubac. Walton was highly regarded as a prospective coach, and an attitude of youthful optimism took over the early season.
The team had started well above expectations at an even 10-10 before a tougher stretch of schedule and the injury bug conspired to derail the season. The Lakers were a putrid 7-24 in December and January, and then seemingly out of nowhere a dramatic ownership battle erupted.
Jeanie Buss, who had been left the controlling owner of the Lakers by her father before he passed, had her primary expertise and focus on the business end of the franchise. Her brother Jim, who worked in the front office, had largely been left to deal with basketball matters, along with General Manager Mitch Kupchak.
Seeing the team continue to underperform in spite of her brother’s pledges to return to title contention, Jeanie had grown impatient. When Jim failed to meet a self-imposed deadline to return to the playoffs by 2017 – the Lakers finished an improved 26-56 but were eliminated from contention in February – Jeanie promptly fired him, Kupchak, and most of the rest of the front office. She replaced them with longtime friend and Laker legend Magic Johnson as President of Basketball Operations and former Kobe Bryant agent Rob Pelinka as General Manager.
Shortly thereafter, as the season unceremoniously wound down, Jeanie was forced to put down an attempt by her scorned brother to take control of the team by taking him to court. The failure to make the playoffs again after a promising start combined with the ugliness of the conflict at the ownership level did not project the look of an organization ready to contend for a title.
Still, Jeanie Buss, Johnson, and Pelinka made some bold moves in the 2017 off-season with a clear objective in mind: restore the Lakers’ status as the premier destination for elite talent in the NBA. To rid themselves of Mozgov’s massive contract, they agreed to trade Russell with him to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Brook Lopez and a draft pick swap. Doing so permitted the Lakers to guarantee they would have max-level salary space the following summer when several big names such as LeBron James and Paul George would be free agents.
They had been aided by the luck of the draw when the NBA Draft Lottery delivered them the second overall pick yet again, a high enough spot for them to retain it. They used it on the college point guard phenomenon Lonzo Ball, who drew comparisons to Johnson for his combination of size, speed, and court vision at that position.
They were also able to use two late first-round picks previously acquired to draft Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart, who along with Ball impressed in Summer League. Also, they signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was a client of LeBron James’ agent and close business partner Rich Paul, to a conspicuously generous contract.
In spite of these changes, the 2017-2018 season started poorly, with injuries and uncertainty about roles again to blame. Yet after an atrocious December, the team played better than .500 basketball, with each of the youngsters impressing in turn, to finish at 35-47. In February, the Lakers traded Clarkson and Nance to Cleveland in a deal that took on only contracts in their last year, increasing potential cap space for the coming free agency period.
With several huge names available and the Lakers openly clearing as much salary cap space as possible to court them, the summer of 2018 was set up to be pivotal in the plan Jeanie Buss, Johnson, and Pelinka had made when they took over the organization the previous season. The circumstances were unlikely to ever be more favorable. They had the money, they had a cast of promising young players on cheap contracts, and they had the best salesman in basketball.
The name most widely connected to the Lakers near the beginning of free agency in 2018 was Paul George. He had requested a trade to the Lakers from Indiana before being dealt to join Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City instead. Yet as midnight approached on day one of the 2018 free agency period, the announcement (complete with a three-part ESPN special that made The Decision seem comparatively modest) came that George would be signing a four-year contract to remain with the Thunder.
Yet again, the Lakers had missed out on a major free agent and it was a body blow to their plan. Given George’s vocal request to be moved to the Lakers, the team had been widely expected to be very competitive in the market for his services. As it was, George was so taken with the lavish recruitment campaign Westbrook and the Thunder mounted that he decided without even granting the Lakers a meeting.
Yet even as the Laker fan base was stunned to the point of despair by George’s decision, Magic Johnson had been quietly invited to a meeting at the Los Angeles home of LeBron James. James was thinking about his future, and the potential attractions of both playing near his family and the media production opportunities available in LA were too strong to ignore.
The one thing James needed to know before making the move was whether he could trust the organization and front office to build winning teams around him. He may have had one eye on life after basketball, but he was not interested in spending his last years in the league trapped on bad teams as Bryant had.
Throughout their conversation, Johnson detailed the Lakers’ long term plans and sold James on a partnership with the organization. The message was particularly powerful coming from Johnson, who was so beloved by Dr. Buss both as a player and an individual that he was given a small ownership stake in the team. James was convinced.
Less than a day later, the Klutch Sports Twitter account tweeted a press release.
Pelinka would later say that he found out in similarly low-key fashion when James’ agent Rich Paul texted him a simple “congratulations”, adorned for good measure with a balloon emoji.
But James was not the herald of a return to elite basketball, at least not immediately. Ball, Ingram, Kuzma, and Hart all had a long way to go, and the Lakers lost sharpshooting center Brook Lopez in free agency to the Bucks. Yet the addition of James was enough to have the Lakers in solid early position at 19-14 entering a Christmas confrontation with the twice defending champion Warriors.
The Lakers played a marvelous game, even closing it out effectively after James left in the third quarter with an apparent groin injury. But 20-14 was as good as the Lakers’ record would be. James’ recovery timeline stretched from weeks to months. Losses mounted as the supporting cast proved maddeningly unable to finish games without him.
The drama escalated when 25-year old superstar Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans went public with a request to be traded to the Lakers. To emphasize the point, he changed his representation to Klutch Sports and Rich Paul. The message was unmistakable: I want to be a Laker and LeBron James wants me to be one too.
The young players spent weeks in the lead-up to the trade deadline reading their names in press reports about trade discussions. Their play and team chemistry suffered. Worst of all, the deadline passed without a deal, meaning that the team and players they had openly been discussing trading were stuck with one another through the end of the year.
When James finally returned after three months, he seemed a step slower. A promised push to sneak into the playoffs never materialized. The team ended the season 37-45, out of the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year. Media personalities began to question whether, at age 34 and having just incurred the first significant injury of his career, James would be himself again even with a long summer to recover.
LeBron James’ first season, even accounting for injuries, was a disappointment. People expected more of Ball and Ingram than they delivered, even when they showed flashes of their potential. James himself hadn’t failed to make the playoffs since his second year in the league. The failure to secure a trade for Davis during the year made the off-season all the more consequential. Some even said that without another star, the Lakers could be compelled to trade James and start over.
Adding to the Lakers’ misfortunes, Johnson unexpectedly resigned after the season, alluding to contention within the organization at the management level. Head Coach Luke Walton was fired. To replace him, the team had a high profile flirtation with former Laker and former James coach Tyronn Lue, only to see that negotiation fall through when the Lakers refused to meet Lue’s price.
Johnson then went to the media to express his frustration with Pelinka, who he claimed had been commenting loudly on the amount of time he spent working with the Lakers as opposed to his other business commitments. Talk of organizational dysfunction was revived.
It was at this point, when the Lakers’ long term plan seemed in serious danger of collapse, that they finally managed to trade for Anthony Davis. Davis’ insistence that the Lakers were his chosen destination scared off other potential suitors and the Lakers’ offer was clearly the best available. When another fortuitous draft lottery made the first-round pick they had been offering the fourth overall, their trade package became too good for New Orleans to refuse indefinitely.
It cost them Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, and a combination of draft picks and optional-swaps sufficient to make the move somewhat risky, but the Lakers finally secured their second superstar. Additionally, the team brought in a coaching staff headed by former Pacers coach Frank Vogel, and with highly regarded names in Jason Kidd and Lionel Hollins as his assistants.
Seeking to build a dynasty, they immediately pivoted to Kawhi Leonard‘s free agency and pitched him heavily on playing with two more of the world’s best players in his home town. Leonard had plans of his own and leveraged the temptation of the Lakers to force the Los Angeles Clippers to trade for Paul George to secure his services.
The 2019 off-season came to a close with mixed reviews. On one hand, it is difficult to criticize anything about the acquisition of Anthony Davis, who is a generational player. Yet, seeing the Lakers lose out on a free agent of Leonard’s caliber to the Clippers of all teams – taking with him another star long linked to the Lakers – only reminded fans of a dozen recent failures in free agency, and continued mistrust of the front office remained.
Starting immediately after Leonard’s signing with the Clippers, the Lakers filled out their roster around their newly minted star duo. Danny Green, Avery Bradley, DeMarcus Cousins, and astonishingly – after Cousins suffered an ACL tear during an off-season workout – Dwight Howard was added to returning players Kuzma, Alex Caruso, Rajon Rondo, and JaVale McGee.
Several prominent commentators who shall remain nameless sneered at the roster. But 34 games into the season the Lakers are 26-7 and first in the highly competitive Western Conference. For the first time since late 2012, the Lakers are playing with championship expectations.
James has come out in MVP form after his long off-season and he and Davis have shown early chemistry both on and off the court that few dared expect. With Davis sending signals of his intent to re-sign with the Lakers in his free agency after this season and the Lakers playing at a championship level, the intermediate future of this team seems – for now – to be secure.
In the last ten years, the Lakers fell farther and harder than they ever had. They had missed the playoffs only four times in 53 years from the time they moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, then they missed them six years running. They whiffed on more than half a dozen high-profile attempts to sign any max-contract caliber player, all while looking at the retired numbers and wondering where they went wrong. They were, over that span, the worst team in the league by the record.
Finally, though, fans have every reason to be hopeful. The two players they have leading their team are both going to be first-ballot Hall of Famers. Even should they fail, for whatever reason, to deliver a championship, they will not fail to be in the conversation every year they play together.
They are playing the sort of crowd-pleasing basketball that made this team the most followed in the world. The front office – following Johnson’s departure – has chosen to remain silent and let the results speak for themselves. They are speaking so loudly no one seems to notice the conspicuous silence at the top of the Lakers organization.
No one really knows if the tandem of James and Davis will win a Finals. There are, as always at the highest levels of athletic competition, dozens of things that could derail their efforts. Yet, for the first time in years, it feels as though the Lakers are making the correct moves and seeing the fruits of their labor. Whatever the next ten years look like for this team, it will not look like the last.
For part 1, click here.
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