17 Jun 19
San Gabriel Valley Tribune
In the relative dark ages for the franchise, Lakers exceptionalism has taken on a new meaning.
In the past few years alone, team executives have sworn to either play for championships or quit. Jim Buss gave himself a deadline to contend – one he never met. Magic Johnson similarly gave himself a timeline to get stars, coming home with LeBron James last summer before following through with his threat to quit.
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General manager Rob Pelinka hasn’t said as much – big all-or-nothing declarations are not his style – but the pattern remains the same. More is expected of the Lakers: more wins, more stars, more championships. And without those things, the scrutiny and pressure build to turn things around for a franchise that rarely has been lost in the wilderness for long.
“I think simply put, the best way to quiet the noise is to do what the Lakers do and that’s to win and to compete for banners,” Pelinka said last month, when criticism whipped furiously around the Lakers’ organization. “The noise will exist if you’re not doing that.”
In that sense, trading for Anthony Davis on Saturday is a deal that turns down a particular kind of heat. Pelinka finally hammered out the deal that had been dangled for months, securing a player who has twice finished in the top five of MVP voting at just 26 years old and breathing new energy into next year’s squad.
The timing is also particularly apt: After suffering two critical injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson in the Finals and with free agency looming, the Golden State Warriors’ stranglehold on the West is slipping. A team with James and Davis – who averaged a combined 53.3 points, 20.5 rebounds, 12.2 assists and 3.0 blocks last season – poses a real threat in a post-Warriors-dynasty world. It’s a mega-wattage pairing, one with few true parallels in NBA history.
But even as Pelinka, team owner Jeanie Buss and other Lakers executives have eased one kind of pressure, other kinds are immediately arising. They now have two generational talents, but they’ll have to prove that they can build a team around them, and that the investment in one year of Davis will yield an extension next summer when he becomes a free agent.
As more details become clear about the deal, it’s clear that the Lakers gave up much of their future to win now. In addition to Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart – all first-round picks – ESPN and other outlets reported the Lakers sent the Pelicans a sizeable package of draft assets: the No. 4 pick this season, a top-8 protected pick in 2021 (which could become an unprotected pick in 2022), a pick swap in 2023 and an unprotected pick in 2024 (that can be deferred to 2025).
It’s a complicated collection of assets, but the bottom line is that the Pelicans will control the Lakers’ draft picks for years to come. It will likely be a long time before the Lakers can amass lottery talent like they did the past few years with Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Ingram and Ball.
There’s even more of a crunch factoring in how it will affect the Lakers’ salary cap. The earliest the deal can be officially completed is on July 6, but the Lakers could get cap relief if they sign the No. 4 draft pick and wait until that player becomes tradeable later in the month. While that’s the clearest path to getting the roughly $32 million required for a third max salary slot – which the Lakers would need to go hunting for a big game free agent like Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler or Kemba Walker – it doesn’t necessarily behoove the Pelicans to wait that long, particularly if they trade away the fourth pick. A team that trades for that caliber of prospect would likely want him in hand as soon as possible, particularly considering Las Vegas Summer League begins on July 5.
Furthermore, Davis has a $4 million trade kicker he can exercise that counts against the Lakers’ salary cap. If the Lakers can’t wait to finish the trade, and if Davis doesn’t waive the kicker, their space will shrink to just under $24 million. That amount will prevent the Lakers from getting a third max contract player, and also will likely limit their options for chasing less prominent free agents in a market where an estimated 40 percent of the league’s active players will be available.
Outside of the big names, shooters will be a premium for the team that finished second-to-last in 3-point shooting last year. New coach Frank Vogel stressed in his introduction that the Lakers offense needs shooting to create space, which becomes all the more important with James’ and Davis’ ability to make plays and score in the paint.
[related_articles location=”left” show_article_date=”false” article_type=”automatic-primary-section”]Backcourt play is all the more important given that the Lakers just traded away two starters from last year’s team, and virtually everyone else will be a free agent this summer. Moe Wagner and Isaac Bonga, draft picks from 2018, still remain for now.
A possible X-factor is how much free agents still believe the Lakers’ prestige and James’ ability to lead championship-caliber teams. On James’ previous contending teams, past-their-prime stars (Mike Miller, Ray Allen) have come to team up with him and provided helpful contributions. While the 2019 market will be more competitive than the 2018 version due to more teams with cap space, perhaps James’ and Davis’ ability to recruit players to their cause can give the Lakers an edge.
It might be hopeful thinking in an era where Lakers exceptionalism hasn’t had its typical positive connotation. But now that the Lakers have taken one big step toward contending again, more will have to follow.
The players themselves recognize this. James greeted Davis with an Instagram post captioned in part: “Let’s get it bro! Just the beginning.” It implies that there’s much more of a climb ahead, one James understands as well as anyone.
The noise won’t stop until they get there.
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AD on da way!! @antdavis23 🤣. Let’s get it bro! Just the beginning..👑 #LakeShow
A post shared by LeBron James (@kingjames) on Jun 15, 2019 at 8:16pm PDT