There’s an epic battle brewing this summer as competing visons from Luke Walton, Magic Johnson, and LeBron James fight for the hearts of Lakers’ fans. Who wins out will determine what kind of team the Lakers will become.
Lakers’ head coach Luke Walton won two championship rings as a Laker playing with Kobe Bryant and two more as a Warriors’ assistant coach. Meanwhile Magic himself won five rings as a Lakers player while LeBron has won two rings as a player with the Miami Heat and one as a player with the Cleveland Cavaliers. All together, the three have won a total of twelve rings, albeit in dramatically different eras playing contrasting styles of basketball.
Under head coach Luke Walton, the Lakers have followed the successful build-through-the-draft business model his former team, the Golden State Warriors, used to create their current championship team. They’ve assembled an exciting, talented team of twenty-somethings and veterans in their prime who love to push the pace, share the ball, and attack the paint on offense and play with aggression and physicality and switch everything on defense.
It’s also no accident the Lakers young roster boasts four potential stars who bear more than a casual similarity to the Warriors’ renowned Big Four. Lonzo Ball is the Lakers’ version of Warriors’ point guard Steph Curry, Julius Randle their version of Warriors’ power forward/small ball center Draymond Green, Brandon Ingram their version of All-NBA small forward Kevin Durant, and Kyle Kuzma their version of Warrior’s shooting guard Klay Thompson.
Like the Warriors with Andre Iguodala, Sean Livingston, and Andrew Bogut, the Lakers also brought in high quality veterans still in their prime in Isaiah Thomas, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Brook Lopez to fill out the roster. The combination of exciting young prospects and proven veteran talent has allowed the Lakers to perform like a legitimate playoff team in the West since early January, winning 21 of 34 games despite multiple major injuries.
The Lakers could continue Luke Walton’s traditional rebuilding vision by signing Paul George and using the rest of their cap space and Bird rights to bring back key free agents of their own like Randle, Thomas, Caldwell-Pope, and Lopez. The addition of PG to the current roster and anticipated growth of their talented young Big Four of Ball, Ingram, Kuzma, and Randle could catapult the Lakers to be one of the top four teams in the West next year.
Magic Johnson has a dramatically different vision for the Lakers but just like Luke, his vision is the unique product of his personal history and experience in the league. Magic doesn’t want to wait and gamble that the Lakers’ young foursome will become stars. He wants to sign two superstars this summer and immediately transform the Lakers into a modern version of Showtime, with LeBron and PG joining talented young stars like Ball, Ingram, and Kuzma.
Signing LeBron and Paul George seems like a no brainer until you realize doing so could actually cost the Lakers all of their own free agents, including Julius Randle, Isaiah Thomas, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Brook Lopez. That’s a lot of quality veteran talent and experience to sacrifice in order to sign LeBron James as your second superstar but Magic is convinced it’s the smart move for the Lakers to make, one that will bring NBA championships.
LeBron James and Paul George should make it easy for the Lakers to fill out their roster with championship caliber role players. They might be able to keep Julius Randle by giving up a pair of first round draft picks to move Deng. Maybe Brook Lopez would re-sign for the room exception and a shot at a ring. Bottom line, a potential starting lineup of Lonzo Ball, Paul George, Brandon Ingram, LeBron James, and Julius Randle would be a legitimate contender.
Imagine Lonzo Ball firing long touchdown passes to a pair of wide receivers like LeBron James and Paul George. Or imagine the physical toll of fighting a bully ball lineup that featured a LeBron James and Julius Randle frontcourt. Magic’s vision may be more chasing rings than building a dynasty but who’s to say LeBron won’t be able to play until he’s 40. Bottom line, Magic’s vision is about winning championships now and letting the future take care of itself.
Finally, LeBron James is likely to have a different vision for the team than Luke Walton or Magic Johnson should he join the Lakers. After all, LeBron’s on a mission to win additional NBA championships before his window closes. Even more than Magic, LeBron’s not going to want to wait for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma to grow and develop into the star players he needs to beat the Houston Rockets or dethrone the Golden State Warriors.
LeBron’s joining the Lakers to be part of a superteam, not just a contender. He’s not joining the Lakers to play with Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Julius Randle. He’s joining to play with Paul George and the superstars the Lakers would be able to acquire by trading their young stars. LeBron’s not going sign a long term deal to join the Lakers unless he’s sure they’re willing to use their war chest of trading chips to build a superteam.
Maybe it will be a trade of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart to the Pelicans for Anthony Davis or Lonzo Ball and Julius Randle to the Spurs for Kawhi Leonard. With a portfolio of young talent on rookie deals and a full complement of draft picks, the Lakers have the trading chips to be at the table when the next Kyrie Irving becomes available. The NBA is at a major turning point in its evolution with the next two summers likely to be block busters.
Trading away most of the young talent that cost the Lakers five years of losses to get to build a superteam with limited shelf life could turn out to be a bold genius move or a dumb decision to chase rings rather than build dynasties. But what fun imagining a Lakers’ starting lineup of Lonzo Ball, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, LeBron James, and DeMarcus Cousins. Who cares if there aren’t enough basketballs or shots. Magic’s vision is no banana boat team.
Whose vision will win out as the Lakers head into a summer of destiny that’ll determine what kind of team they’ll become? The beautiful thing is it doesn’t matter to most Lakers fans. While they would love to see LeBron’s vision of a superteam or Magic’s vision of LeBron and PG playing with the Lakers’ kids, the truth is most Lakers fans would be more than happy with Luke Walton’s vision. Building a dynasty or chasing a ring, everything’s coming up Lakers.