The Los Angeles Lakers enter the 2018 offseason in great shape. They have a really nice young core, tons of salary cap space, two respected men running the front office, an up-and-coming head coach and a feeling leaguewide like they’re on the verge of making a jump. With that in mind, what follows is a look at what I think the perfect offseason looks like for Magic Johnson’s team.
While there are a ton of routes Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka could choose to go, what follows is the best blueprint for long-term success.
Draft shooting and backcourt depth
First off, the draft is later this week and the Lakers have the 25th pick in the first round. With that selection they need to secure one of two things: a consistent 3-point threat, or an athletic backcourt player for the second unit. A guy like Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo would address both needs but he may not be on the board when the Lakers pick.
Resist trading young assets
While Kawhi Leonard rumors swirl, the Lakers should ignore them. Under no circumstances should they trade any members of their young core to land an All-Star.
All four players showed flashes of being outstanding NBA players last season, while Kuzma and Ingram were two of the best young players in the league. Ball has some growing up and adjusting to do and Hart came on strong at the end of the season. There is no reason to ship two or more of those players to get one All-Star, especially given how ridiculously cheap their contracts are.
I like Leonard, but surrendering assets for a guy who can come to LA as a free agent next year anyway is just foolish. If he really wants to be in Los Angeles, he should gut out this season and head there in free agency. If he’s not willing to do that, then it’s not worth it.
Tread carefully in free agency
After the draft, the team will have to get down to the hard work of filling out its roster. The first order of business will be bringing in both LeBron James and Paul George for free agent visits. But here’s the thing, under no circumstances should the Lakers sign both players.
Los Angeles will have roughly $45 million in cap space to open free agency. By waiving and stretching Luol Deng’s ridiculous contract they can get to about $53 million. But to create two max contract slots, the Lakers would essentially have to clear the entire roster other than Ingram, Ball, Kuzma and Hart. So if they did land those two max guys, they’d have to fill out the roster with veteran’s minimum contract players, which would be a terrible idea.
When it comes to outside free agents, the Lakers have to be ready to land one, but not go after two max guys. That would be foolish at this point.
Paul George to me is not worth a max deal. I like his game and at times think he still shows star ability. But those occurrences are few and far between. He had a disappointing season with Oklahoma City in 2017-18, as his points, rebounds and assists per 40 minutes were down, as were his true shooting percentage, rebound rate and PER. He’s 28, is not going to get demonstrably better and seems like a prime candidate to get paid big money and fall off a cliff production-wise.
Obviously if you can get LeBron James, you do it. But if he wants to come to Los Angeles, he has to understand the franchise isn’t going to go chase his buddies for him. James seems to want to create a super-team wherever he goes. That formula simply is not working in the modern NBA. The Warriors have broken that model because they cracked the code to get four All-Stars and a number of quality bench players. A super-team with guys on max contracts will, at best, wind up being a three on four proposition against Golden State.
If James wants to be a Laker he has to understand that head coach Luke Walton is building something different than a mid-2000s super team. He wants his squad to play team basketball where everyone on the court is a threat to score. It’s attacking basketball using your teammates, not an ISO-focused game where the team holds the ball until late in the shot clock and lets one guy break opponents down. The latter style didn’t work for James in Cleveland. If he wants to beat the Warriors he has to change things up.
If James isn’t willing to buy-in to adding to the Lakers’ young core and helping bring them along — and maybe not competing for a title next season — the Lakers should tell him he isn’t a fit. They have built something that could turn into a dynasty and shouldn’t surrender it to potentially have just two or three competitive years with LeBron and friends.
Putting James and George on the same team makes zero sense to me, since their games don’t really complement each other. It makes even less sense when you look at LA’s roster and see Kuzma and Ingram already occupying space on the wing. It would create a terrible imbalanced roster.
Honestly, one or the other is the right move for the Lakers. And if they get neither, they’ll have plenty of cap space heading into next summer when a deep crop of free agents comes available.
Don’t devalue Julius Randle
The Lakers also have to make a decision on Julius Randle, who was hands down the best player on the roster during the 2017-18 season.
I’ve made my feelings on Randle known before. Last offseason he got into phenomenal shape, took on the challenge the organization put in front of him and had by far the best season of his career. Randle set career-highs in points (16.1), field goal percentage (55.8), PER (19.96), points per 40 minutes (24.2) and true shooting percentage (60.6). He was a force on the low block and, thanks to his weight loss, a much-improved defender.
At this point, if the Lakers could get Randle to sign an extension for around $15 million a year, they should do it without even thinking. He’s still just 23 years old and was the heart and soul of the team last season. In fact, Randle for $15 million vs. Paul George at $30 million is a joke to me. Take the younger guy who had a better PER (George was at 18.71) at half the price.
Now, if a Randle deal gets more than $15 million a year, there will be discussions to be had. But even at $17 million a year he’s probably a steal given his age, career trajectory and the clout he has in the team’s locker room.
I realize the last few seasons have been difficult in Lakerland. And now so many have dreams of creating a super-team and reconquering the Western Conference. I understand those dreams, even if they are far-fetched. But that’s not the smart way to field a team in 2018.
The Lakers are currently young, athletic, exciting and play a fun brand of basketball. Their young players have outstanding chemistry, they share the ball and are all improving rapidly. As currently constructed this is a playoff team next season.
Yes, Los Angeles should look to add to this group, but not at the expense of its future.
The goal should be competing for a conference title during the 2019-2020 season with this core and pieces added to it. At that point it’s not hard seeing this group replacing the Warriors as the dominant squad out West.