The Art of Keeping the Right Players!

Why the Lakers’ grand plan to sign two free agent superstars almost cost them a future superstar in Julius Randle

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Timing is everything. Julius Randle’s journey from trade bait to budding superstar should make the Lakers think twice before trading any more of their talented young core. They almost traded away their first superstar.

There’s an art to keeping the right players. Nothing is more frustrating to a general manager than to give up and trade a talented young player only to see him to break out playing for his new team, like Victor Oladipo did when traded by the Thunder to the Pacers. The Lakers came perilously close to making the very same mistake with Julius Randle. They’re lucky Julius didn’t let the loss of his starting position keep him from breaking out as a player.

In retrospect, the Lakers’ front office and coaching staff almost took too long to figure out how best to unleash Julius Randle’s unique talents and skillset. Losing that first season to a broken leg probably cost Randle his extension as well as a year of development. The Lakers’ surplus of power forwards and competition from Larry Nance, Jr. and Kyle Kuzma added to the challenge. Fortunately, Julius took control and let his great play make the decision.

Part of the problem was that Randle never fit the modern model for an NBA power forward. In many ways, he was a small forward who couldn’t shoot in an undersized power forward’s body. He lacked the elite size, length, and shooting stroke of a modern NBA power forward. But what Julius did have was freakish speed, quickness, power, and athleticism for a player his size. The Lakers’ challenge was transforming him from an enigma to a unicorn.

Credit for Randle’s transformation has to go to Luke Walton, whose “tough love” approach and constant demand that Julius work hard on defense and share the ball on offense enabled him to take his game to the next level. There’s still some question as to Randle’s best position as he spent the first half of this season dominating off the bench as a small ball center and the time since continuing to dominate as the Lakers’ starting power forward.

What’s not in question is Randle’s superstar potential. Since early January, when Luke finally moved him into the starting lineup as a power forward, Julius has been the unquestioned team MVP, leading the Lakers in scoring and rebounding, averaged 18.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists per game. He also improved his defense, taking over the role of guarding the other team’s best big while also averaging 0.7 steals and 0.5 blocks per game.

More important has been how dominant and efficient Randle has become since starting. His bully ball style of play has become the heart and soul of this team and been the catalyst behind the Lakers’ late season resurgence. Randle has consistently won head-to-head matchups against the league’s elite starting centers and power forwards and has increased his field goal percentage to 57.1% and raised his free throw percentage to 75.7%.

The Lakers were fortunate their grand plan to sign two superstars in free agency this summer didn’t cost them Julius Randle, who now appears to have a good chance to be the first of many home grown Laker superstars. Nobody knows how close the Lakers may have actually been to trading Randle but there’s little doubt his future in purple and gold had been in question with Luke’s decision not to start him and the constant rumors of possible trades.

The Lakers aren’t home free yet because they still have to reach a deal with Randle to remain a Laker while also trying to maintain cap space to sign two max contract free agents. The smart preemptive move would be for the Lakers to reach a deal with Julius to be announced the minute free agency opens. It will probably take a 4-year deal starting at $18 million per year to get Randle to forego soliciting offers from other teams but it has to be done.

Better to risk having to give up more than expected to move Deng’s contract than risk allowing Julius Randle to solicit an unmatchable offer from other team as a restricted free agent. This is where Julius Randle and Paul George both having Aaron Mintz as their agent could work in the Laker’ favor. The key point, however, it would be lunacy for the Lakers to risk losing budding superstar Julius Randle by gambling on signing two veteran superstars.

There are critical lessons to be learned from Julius Randle’s emergence that the Lakers will need to remember whenever they’re tempted to trade more of their impressive young core, especially if they sign LeBron as a free agent. The front office and scouting department have done a fabulous job drafting exciting young talent with tremendous potential but the Lakers need to be careful going forward to make the right decisions and keep the right players.

Right now, there are four players on the Lakers who should be untouchable. Julius Randle is the team MVP and emotional leader, their Draymond Green. Lonzo Ball is the Lakers’ point guard of the future and the next Jason Kidd. Brandon Ingram may not be the next KD but he could be Giannis with a shot. And Kyle Kuzma has the potential to be this team’s version of Robert Horry. These four players have too much upside for the Lakers ever to trade them.

Pressure may mount to cash in key young trading chips as Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka continue to stress Lakers Exceptionalism and their grand plan to sign two max contract free agents this summer. Hopefully, having dodged a bullet and avoided making a huge mistake by trading Julius Randle at the deadline, I’m hoping the Lakers will reconsider and make re-signing Julius Randle their top priority this summer, even before signing two superstars.

There’s an art to keeping the right players. The Lakers need to remember that when trying to move Deng’s contract or trade young talent for veteran stars. The last thing the Lakers want to do after suffering for five years of losses to acquire a great collection of young talent is trade them for win-now vet stars only to have them become All-Stars and superstars a couple of years later. That’s almost exactly what just happened to the Lakers with Julius Randle.

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