Much was made in Los Angeles this week of Magic Johnson announcing that, if his Lakers don’t land any stars either this summer or next, he plans to move on from running the franchise.
But rather than focusing on Johnson’s self-imposed ultimatum, perhaps it is more instructive to think about the first part: that it’s going to be a “two-summer thing” for the Lakers.
It was a notable statement for a team with the salary cap flexibility to sign two max free agents this summer, and the latest sign that this summer could end the same as the Lakers’ last few: with the glitzy organization shut out from landing the league’s biggest stars.
As this week has dragged on, and free agency draws ever closer, that possibility has seemed to grow by the day.
The prevailing opinion around the NBA when the Oklahoma City Thunder was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs was that Paul George would be headed elsewhere — likely the Lakers — as a free agent. But the prevailing opinion around the league now, in speaking with multiple teams over the past 48 hours, is that George is going to return to Oklahoma City this summer.
It’s no coincidence that the Lakers have sped up their pursuit of a potential Kawhi Leonard trade, as ESPN reported Wednesday — knowing that, if they can’t land Leonard or George, the chances of getting LeBron James to come to Los Angeles by himself are remote at best.
The question now is whether the Lakers even have enough to convince the San Antonio Spurs to send Leonard there. With San Antonio believed to be uninterested in Lonzo Ball, the Lakers have three other intriguing young players — Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart — plus their future first-round picks to include in a deal.
In an attempt to sweeten the pot, multiple sources said the Lakers and Denver Nuggets are discussing a potential deal that would see Los Angeles take back bad money for a draft pick. The Nuggets, who will be deep into the luxury tax after re-signing restricted free agent center Nikola Jokic next month, have about $34 million in expiring contracts for Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur and Wilson Chandler to send out in possible deals.
It’s reasonable to assume such a deal would only happen if it was necessary to get a Leonard trade over the finish line. There’s always a chance Ball could be moved elsewhere for other assets San Antonio may prefer, as well.
Throughout all of this, the Lakers are working against the clock. James could potentially opt into his contract Friday — which, if he does, would all but eliminate the Lakers from getting him this summer. That means the Lakers need to figure something out soon to make the most compelling case to James next month — that is, assuming the talk about George staying in Oklahoma City is true.
Then there is the fact that, after the Lakers failed to offer the Indiana Pacers a compelling enough package to trade for George last summer — assuming he would sign with them this summer — he now may not wind up in Los Angeles at all. Things could turn out differently with Leonard, whose camp has clearly stated that Los Angeles — and preferably the Lakers — are his top choices for a new home.
Then again, failing to do what it takes to get Leonard now could lead to a similar situation next summer when he becomes a free agent.
Other teams — most notably the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers — have better assets to throw San Antonio’s way, should they choose to make a significant offer for Leonard. Both have higher upside young players and better draft picks to throw into deals than the Lakers — assuming they are motivated to use them.
The Lakers, like so many teams at this time of year, find themselves stuck trying to decipher exactly what is happening. They do so knowing that, depending how this shakes out, they could either wind up with the kind of star-studded roster the franchise has expected virtually its entire history, or the kind they’ve had the past few years — long on promises of future success, but short on tangible proof that success is possible.
Earlier this week, Lakers owner Jeanie Buss declared she has “complete faith” in the partnership of Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka atop the organization, and feels the team is in a far different place than it was in years past — and, particularly, under the past administration of her brother, Jim, and former general manager Mitch Kupchak.
“I think now we have our feet firmly planted on the ground,” Buss said, “and we’re showing people what we stand for.”
By saying that it’s a two-summer thing, it appears Johnson indeed has his feet on the ground — and, more importantly, planted in reality. It’s just not the reality the Lakers, and their fans, have been counting on.
If the Lakers want to change that, the clock is ticking.