While Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka were working diligently during the season to create the cap space to sign two superstars this summer, the rapid development of the Lakers’ young core may have changed their minds.
There’s a consensus quietly building that the Lakers’ best option this summer and next season may be to double down on continuing to grow and develop their talented young core rather than adding two max contract superstars. The likely strategy that’s emerging has the Lakers signing Paul George as their only superstar this summer, relying on their young stars to break out, and either saving the remaining cap space or spending it on role players.
That’s an option many Lakers fans have heartily embraced as they’ve watched these young players grow and develop, seen the glimpses of future greatness, and fallen in love with the idea of a home grown Lakers championship team. Nobody knows if Lonzo Ball will be the next Jason Kidd, or Brandon Ingram the next Kevin Durant, or Kyle Kuzma the next Kobe Bryant, but everybody’s starting to agree all three of these young players have a chance to be special.
The Lakers’ young core is also more than just superstars Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma. It also includes rookie two-way guard Josh Hart, rookie stretch center Thomas Bryant, and small ball center/power forward and team MVP Julius Randle, plus two more picks in next month’s NBA Draft. Even former Laker superstar great Kobe Bryant has come out in favor of the Lakers staying the course and continuing to rebuild the team organically:
“I love everything that I’ve been seeing from these young guys. Their ability to fight, getting in the gym early, staying late. All these things are things that pay off. I understand this market is like ‘you gotta win like, yesterday’, but that’s not always the case, you know? If you want to be a dynasty or a team that has longevity, those things take time, and generally are grown from within.”
Deciding not to sign two superstars opens up an entire new world of options for the Lakers. After signing Paul George, they could save the rest of their cap space for summer 2019 by signing players to short term deals like last year. The only problem with this strategy is they might not be able to find players on short term deals who are better than Brook Lopez and KCP, which means the team the Lakers field might not be good enough to make the playoffs.
There’s also the issue of whether elite free agents will actually be available the summer of 2019. Klay Thompson is already supposedly negotiating an extension with the Warriors, Jimmy Butler is allegedly interested in returning to the Bulls, and Kawhi Leonard will either stay with the Spurs or be traded. More reasons for the Lakers to double down on their talented young core to deliver the additional stars they’ll need to compete for NBA championships.
Rather than using the second half of their cap space on short term deals, the Lakers might be better off using their remaining cap space to sign high quality role players who could fill valuable needs and upgrade the roster. A veteran backup point guard to mentor Lonzo, shut-down wing defender to guard opposing team’s top scorer, and athletic mobile rim protector to anchor their switch-everything defense could elevate the Lakers to contender status.
The Lakers are in almost the same stage of development as the Golden State Warriors were a couple of years before they became a juggernaut. It’s not a secret the Lakers have basically been following the same rebuilding blueprint the Warriors used so why not continue to trust that process. What turned the Warriors around wasn’t chasing superstars but building organically by adding elite role players who filled vital holes and complemented their young core.
What the Warriors did at the same point in their rise to the top was add a shut-down wing defender in Andre Iguodala, clutch backup point guard in Shaun Livingston, and elite shot blocker in Andrew Bogut. The addition of these three elite role players plus the natural growth and development of their young core is how the Warriors built their current championship team. The Lakers would wise to emulate the Warriors and look to do the same.
The NBA Draft on June 21st will give us our first hint at what Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are planning to do this summer. Trading the first round pick to move Deng would be a sign the Lakers were still targeting two superstars. That’s a trade the Lakers have to make to clear cap space for two superstars and should make on or before the actual draft. Keeping that first round pick, on the other hand, would be a clear sign the Lakers plan to build organically.
With the #25 and #47 picks in the draft, the Lakers are hoping to repeat their success in hitting winners with the #27, #30, and #42 picks last draft, which produced three budding stars in Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, and Thomas Bryant. The Lakers have heavily emphasized defense and conditioning to the players they’ve worked out and seem to be following the same game plan as last draft with a focus on potential backup point guards, small forwards, and centers.
Come free agency, the Lakers’ first two priorities will be to sign Julius Randle and Paul George. Once they’ve reached agreements with Randle and George, they need to use their remaining cap space to find a trio of elite role players who can backup key positions and accelerate the growth of their young core much like Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and Andrew Bogut did for the Warriors. That’s what the Lakers need now more than another superstar.
After reaching agreements with Randle and PG, waiving and stretching Luol Deng, waiving or trading Ivica Zubac, and accounting for the #25 pick and charges for 5 of 12 empty slots, the Lakers would have around $27.5 million in cap space plus their $4.4 million room exception for three key role players. They could use the space to re-sign Brook Lopez, Isiah Thomas, or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to 1-year deals or they could look for longer term solutions.
Imagine the impact adding a savvy veteran point guard like Rajon Rondo, shut down perimeter defender like Marcus Smart, or elite shot blocker like Clint Capela or Nerlens Noel would have on the current Lakers squad. Those are the kinds of moves the Lakers need to do to optimize their young core. The last thing they need right now is LeBron taking the ball out of Lonzo’s hands or Kawhi costing us Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart or Kyle Kuzma.
For the first time in five years, the Lakers have establish a clear identity around the league as a team committed to relentlessly pushing the ball on offense and switching everything and attacking aggressively on defense. When everybody was healthy, the Lakers record was actually among the top four in the West and their talented young core the envy of the league. They aren’t ready to compete for a championship yet but they’re on their way.
It’s also not just the fans who want the Lakers to stay the course and build the team organically. The team’s entire young core has already developed a bond and synergistic chemistry and culture that needs to be valued and protected. In a recent interview with Sam Alipour for ESPN The Magazine on the subject of the Lakers looking to add two superstars including his idol LeBron James, here’s what Lonzo replied when asked “What would you like to see happen?”
“If LeBron comes, great. If not, I wish him the best. But I like our team right now, to be honest. Got a lot of young, growing talent — myself, Kuz, Brandon Ingram is growing a lot, Julius Randle really evolved this year. I love those guys, and we’ll be special in the future.”
I’m with Kobe and Lonzo on this one. Time for the Lakers to forget about signing two superstars this summer and double down on their young core. That’s how the Lakers can build a more sustainable championship dynasty.