16 Jun 19
Orange County Register
So, after eight years in decline and two months of sending in the clowns, the Lakers are once more the Lakers, the NBA’s glamour franchise, the stars’ destination of choice.
It hadn’t seemed like that for years and never less than since Magic Johnson fled April 9, goring GM Rob Pelinka on the way out for back-stabbing him.
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Diplomatically, Johnson didn’t actually name Pelinka … until May 20, when Magic felt forced to defend himself anew and went on TV to accuse of Rob of “betrayal” … coincidentally eclipsing the Lakers’ introductory press conference for Coach Frank Vogel, the first time they took questions on their meltdown in what was supposed to signal they were getting on with their lives.
It only seems ironic that it was Pelinka, whom Johnson left bleeding for the press to dine on, like chum for sharks, who executed Magic’s plan, which started with trading for Anthony Davis, and perhaps leaving enough cap space for a premium free agent (though that scenario has taken a severe hit if the trade is going official on July 6, as it reportedly will).
Actually, it was everyone’s plan. Local teenagers could have seen this opportunity and made this call.
I wrote about Davis a year ago after LeBron James arrived but Paul George didn’t, leaving the Lakers with one maximum salary slot for this summer, although I mistakenly listed A.D. as a 2019 free agent when he was under contract through 2020.
That distinction turned into a nicety that didn’t matter last fall when Davis, who hadn’t said a discouraging word about the Pelicans’ struggles while making the playoffs twice in seven seasons, told them privately he would refuse to sign in 2020 if hey couldn’t fulfill his destiny there.
Of course, the ultimatum got out in nano-seconds. Worse for the Pels, A.D. didn’t merely want them to be a good team. They were already at that level, having won 48 games in the 2017-18 season.
Said Davis in what looked like a warmup for his farewell address: “Going to the playoffs every three years doesn’t help my case.”
If everyone thought the Lakers were behind this, that was giving them too much credit. They were actually just along for the ride.
It was James driving this on the Lakers’ behalf, and his … and, of course, A.D.’s.
Davis had just fired his agent, the well-regarded Thad Doucher, replacing him with Rich Paul, LeBron’s agent and once one of the LeBron troop of young insiders known as the “Four Horsemen.”
In January, with the Lakers trying to come up with trade packages to satisfy the furious Pelicans, Paul went public with A.D.’s request to be traded … a no-no. The NBA fined Paul $50,000, which was like a tip in LeBron World.
Johnson then reportedly offered everybody, including Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, but Pelicans GM Dell Demps showed no interest.
Not that Demps was just speaking for himself. The Pelicans’ fury at seeing their star wooed away came from owner Gayle Benson, who was reported to have said A.D. would go to the Lakers “over my dead body.”
Benson, the owner of the NFL’s Saints who had shown scant interest in her NBA team, settled for firing Demps and hiring former Cleveland GM David Griffin, who hoped to heal the breach with A.D. and, if not, to find a better package than the Lakers could offer.
But Davis was already gone, in his own head, at least. Not even seeing the Pelicans land the exciting Zion Williamson in the draft could turn him around.
The Pelicans’ preferred trade partner was Boston. The Celtics had by far the most to offer with three first-round picks and young prospects that could include Jayson Tatum, with GM Danny Ainge hoping that acquiring A.D. would keep free agent Kyrie Irving from leaving.
But neither the Celtics nor the Pelicans were in charge, either. Paul, or actually, James, was.
Paul informed the Pelicans that Davis would only re-sign with two teams, the Lakers and Knicks.
If Ainge hadn’t gotten the message, Paul warned him away as subtly as if he carved it out of stone tablets.
“They (Celtics) can trade for him but it’ll be for one year,” Paul told Sports Illustrated’s Scott Price.
“I mean, if the Celtics traded for Anthony Davis, we would go there and we would abide by our contractual (obligations) and we would go into free agency in 2020. I’ve stated that to them.
“But in the event that he decides to walk away and you give away assets? Don’t blame Rich Paul.”
With the Knicks having little to trade aside from their No. 3 overall pick, that left only the Lakers for New Orleans to deal with.
The Lakers noticed. The package they reportedly offered includes Ingram, Ball, Josh Hart and three first-round picks, fewer active players than they offered at the trade deadline when Johnson reportedly made Kuzma available.
Suggesting that no one else was pounding on their door, the Pelicans didn’t bother to run out the clock before draft day, agreeing to the deal over the weekend before.
Assuming this goes down as reported, the credit goes to Pelinka, who needed it after being vilified in the press and surrounded by the committee of Jeanie Buss, friends and her family that turning their coaching search into a slapstick comedy in which their top two candidates as humble as Ty Lue and Monty Williams both withdrew.
The Lakers’ way is now clear though with July 6 reportedly the date the trade will go official, the Lakers’ ability to bring in a third star, be it a second-tier free agent such as Kemba Walker or Jimmy Butler, or an elite one such as Kyrie, would require that player take significantly less than a max contract. The Lakers’ inability to convince the Pelicans to wait until July 30 to make the deal official, combined with the reports that Davis will most likely not waive his $4.1 million trade kicker, means the Lakers will probably not have anywhere close to max cap space in free agency (expect them to have $23.7 million instead of $27.8 million or the $32.5 million that the biggest names will command). If the teams waited until July 30 to complete the trade, the Lakers would have $32.5 million in cap space, though that sounds unlikely for now.
Davis just turned 26, making him an invaluable bridge to the future they needed with James going into his age 35 season.
Not that we can be sure they’re headed for greatness, as in the days of Jerry Buss and Jerry West.
[related_articles location=”left” show_article_date=”false” article_type=”automatic-primary-section”] However thin-skinned Johnson showed himself to be, his warning about all the people seeking to be involved rings true in a front office in which Pelinka, struggling to gain footing, is merely one actor along with Jeanie, Jesse and Joey Buss, Linda Rambis, Kurt Rambis and Tim Harris.
Then there’s their new assistant coach/master of intrigue Jason Kidd, who will either be on Vogel’s staff, looking over his shoulder, or both.
In any case, the great expectations will be back, making this a welcome day for Lakers fans.
It was a long time coming, but not as long as it looked like it was going to be.