Some great movies are made, and also ruined, by the plot twist.
The script for the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2018-19 season had the hype necessary for fans to watch, care and enjoy a bag of buttery and heightened expectations with their ‘ great time out’ at Staples. The storyline was not only intriguing. It was rather juicy:
Laker legend Magic Johnson and his partner, superstar agent turned GM Rob Pelinka, takes control of the front office, lands the ‘biggest’ box office draw in the league (played by LeBron James), hoping that he will carry a team that consists of young players with potential (i.e. Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram) and a motley crew of castaways (i.e. Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson) back to relevancy.
For a moment, the ‘box office’ numbers were impressive considering the team’s ‘supporting cast’. The Lakers were fourth in the West until James injured his groin against the Golden State Warriors on Christmas. Eleven games later, the Lakers slid into the conference cellar. The front office (and James himself?) openly pursued Pelicans’ star Anthony Davis at the trade deadline and were seemingly willing to trade the young core to get him.
Since then? A team meeting regarding James’ body language, injuries to Ball and Ingram, James bouncing in and out of the lineup-alternating between padding stats and ‘load management.’ The losses continue to pile up and the Lakers were eliminated from playoff contention a week before sitting James for the last six games of the season.
In the aftermath of another lost Lakers season, the belief is one or two upcoming free agents to pair with James will put L.A. back in the mix. However, landing a superstar free agent may not be as easy as the Lakers assume it will be. The Lakers are relying on their history and mystique as one of the most storied franchises, not only in league history but in all of sports to attract the names.
The harsh reality is that it’s not enough.
Granted the Lakers will have the salary cap space to lure a big name free agent, but these players are typically looking for more than just the money. They want to be a part of a winning environment. They want to be in a situation where there’s less stress. When it comes to off-court opportunities, these highest-profile players can now make their own regardless of the market they’re in.
So what’s in it for them to rock the purple and gold now? To play with LeBron James?
The possibility of playing second fiddle and getting less of the praise when the Lakers win and most of the blame when they lose is always there. Not to mention dealing with the media circus.
The Lakers must do better than that. In order to return to relevancy and contention, they need to clean house and develop a new culture.
Fire Johnson and Pelinka
When the duo of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka took over the Lakers’ front office two years ago, they had well-meaning intentions. Their plan of developing the raw talent already on the roster while also clearing cap space to pursue the top free agents was simple and sensible.
However, there have been many missteps during their tenure. While offloading Timofey Mozgov and his four-year, $64 million salary cap eyesore, Johnson also shipped D’Angelo to Brooklyn in exchange for Brook Lopez and 2017’s 27th pick that became Kyle Kuzma.
On the surface, this was a great decision. They got the salary dump and two solid players. However, that doesn’t negate the fact that instead of re-establishing trust with Russell after the Nick Young incident and working to develop the guard who’s game is a fit for the league now, Johnson chose to get rid of him because, in his words, Russell is “not a leader.” Oh, and then they let Brook Lopez walk this past offseason for nothing, despite the fact he’s a solid veteran presence with the kind of stretchy game that fits leaguewide now.
After signing James in the offseason, Johnson added JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, Michael Beasley, etc. to one-year deals, even though only McGee and Rondo were really producing last season.
Julius Randle’s role became diminished, and now he’s productive in New Orleans. Just like Russell, the new front office made another solid player expendable.
However, getting rid of Randle and Lopez wasn’t the most erroneous move. They traded Ivica Zubac and Beasley to the Clippers for Mike Muscala in hope of signing a shooter or another big. (Oh, you mean the kind of player Brook Lopez is?)
But it didn’t happen. They could have just waived Beasley or some other expendable part. You don’t trade a big like Zubac that seemed to be flourishing in the system.
Johnson and Pelinka’s decision making leaves a lot to be desired. They had solid players in Russell, Zubac, Lopez and Randle but didn’t bother to develop them as they acclimated James. Not to mention their mid-season pursuit of Anthony Davis wrecked the locker room’s chemistry.
Great players don’t make the best executives. The Lakers need a general manager with significant front office experience and one that isn’t easily influenced.
The Lakers’ next vice president of basketball operations and general manager should be someone who has front office experience and in touch with today’s game. They could really benefit by having a general manager or VP in the vein of Golden State’s Bob Myers or Houston’s Daryl Morey. Sure, neither of those two guys will be available, but it’s the type that’s important here.
When it comes to building and cultivating a culture, Myers is the best in the league. Not only does he finds the right fit on the court, he finds it off the court as well. Team bonding and chemistry is very underrated but just as vital to the process of building a contender and champion. Given the expectations and pressures surrounding a team like the Lakers, it’s important to have the kind of high character guys that can effectively navigate it all.
For all of his antics on social media, Morey is a solid GM who has his pulse on the trends around the league. He has constantly rebuilt a roster consisting of switch-heavy wings and athletic bigs to put around James Harden and Chris Paul. Finding the “next great GM” is something every rebuilding NBA team is hunting for, but it’s imperative the Lakers jump to the front of the line as the Johnson/Pelinka duo just doesn’t seem to be it.
Fire Luke Walton
The Golden State Warriors’ 73-9 regular season record was possibly the worst thing that’s ever happened to Luke Walton.
During Steve Kerr’s absence early in the 2015-16 season, Walton assumed head coach duties and guided the team to a 39-4 record that included winning 22 straight. Seeing what Walton did with the Warriors obviously had teams wondering and ready to poach.
It didn’t matter that Walton did this with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, other teams only saw the results and ignored the context
In the Lakers, Walton had an opportunity to coach his hometown team and not much else. In hindsight, Walton perhaps wasn’t quite ready to be a head coach. Despite his run, he was still an assistant coach under the tutelage of Kerr. Two or three more seasons in Golden State under Kerr, Ron Adams and Bruce Frazier could have benefited Walton.
During the first seven games of the season, the Lakers tried 93 different lineups trying to find a fit. In addition to lineup instability, Walton often struggles with making in-game adjustments.
While he has some redeemable qualities as far as methods of keeping his players engaged—like emulating Kerr’s competition board and not losing his perspective as a former player to manage a locker room—it’s just that Walton’s tenure has seemingly run its course in L.A.
Through three seasons, Walton is 95-145 with no playoff appearances. At this point, it’s best for the Lakers to wipe the slate clean and search for a coach that will instill defense but equally stand up to James and his influence. This needs to be the rarest of coaches who can and will really challenge James when it comes to knowing what’s best for the team. The Lakers desperately need that presence in order to change the culture.
Cut the expendable and salvage what’s left
Granted, the Lakers’ experiment with Rondo, Stephenson, et al was a flop. Beasley was traded and McGee dropped out of the lineup for a minute. However, the Lakers could keep a few of these players with James and the young core.
The Lakers should keep Rondo and McGee for sure. The former is still viable as a veteran presence that can help Lonzo Ball become a better defender and playmaker and can steady the second unit at the point.
McGee would be more effective coming off the bench, especially if they get a starting big. For example, let’s say the Lakers end up with free-agent-to-be DeAndre Jordan. They could feature McGee in the second unit, who wouldn’t have to worry about a lack of minutes. They could get him 20 to 25 minutes per game (McGee is an asthmatic). In those minutes, McGee could provide the Lakers with solid rebounding, blocks and vertical spacing as he catch lobs and run off the pick and roll with Rondo.
With that said, I believe the young core of Ball, Kuzma, Ingram should stay with the organization and continue to develop their game. If the Lakers fire Walton, it would be wise for the new coach to invest and develop these guys, regardless of James’ shortterm expectations.
Before his season-ending injury, Ingram was solid in the lineup. With even more development, it could be possible to start him at small forward and move James to the four. Ball is a facilitator, playmaker and a solid defender. His scoring needs work but, if he could improve his off-ball shooting even slightly while perfecting his strengths, he’d be okay since James, Ingram and Kuzma will handle the bulk of scoring.
After the tumultuous and disappointing season they had, the Lakers really need to do some self-reflecting amid tough decisions. It’s time to rebuild a culture that’s attractive to the top free agents. That may take one more year to get it right, even if it’s the final year LeBron can be counted on to fully carry a roster.
Otherwise, the Lakers would continue to be a team living off a storied history as insulation against harsh reality.