Magic Johnson and the Lakers have talked a big game about their plans for this summer. Johnson has been very forward about his desire to bring in a pair of max contract free agents, with Paul George and LeBron James being the top two targets.
However, to this point, L.A. has failed to make the moves necessary to clear the cap space to pursue two max players in July, as they remain handcuffed by Luol Deng’s contract and also need to shed others like Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle. There are still two days for them to figure those issues out, but as the clock counts down to Thursday’s deadline, reality appears to be setting in for the Lakers.
The optimism about this summer being the one in which the Lakers become an immediate contender again is waning, and it’s becoming more and more obvious that they’re going to struggle to get one of the big free agents this summer, much less two. Paul George has dropped many hints that he’s very happy in Oklahoma City and might put off a potential homecoming in L.A. to remain with Russell Westbrook and company. LeBron remains a wild card this summer with no one really knowing what he’ll do, but considering his biggest desire is to keep winning, L.A. almost assuredly has to have a plan in place to bring in other star caliber players along with him.
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelbourne, this realization that their top two targets are far from locks, along with a third target, DeMarcus Cousins, facing the unknown of an Achilles injury, has led the Lakers to look ahead to the summer of 2019 as a better opportunity to load up and land star talent.
The Lakers aren’t abandoning a summer pursuit of stars, but rather recalibrating their focus on a 2019 class that could include San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, Golden State’s Klay Thompson and Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, league sources told ESPN.
Pushing back a year on big-game hunting in free agency could serve two purposes: It could alleviate the urgency to unload contracts at Thursday’s trade deadline and around the June NBA draft that could require the Lakers to attach future draft assets as incentives, and it could allow the Lakers’ talented young core — including Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart — to further develop and become more attractive for veteran stars to join.
It’s important to note the part about them not “abandoning” their efforts this summer, but they do appear to be taking a more measured approach than putting all their eggs into one basket, which is something Lakers fans should be pleased about. Landing some combination of James, George and Cousins was always going to be a long shot and shipping off assets simply to create the space to try to make that happen was short-sighted at best.
It will be easier for the Lakers to create the space necessary to chase a pair of stars in 2019, with Deng’s contract having one fewer year remaining, allowing it to be potentially moved or making a buyout easier to swallow. Jordan Clarkson could also get moved for an expiring next year that would push $13.4 million off of the books and if they are judicious this summer with adding short-term contracts rather than making the same mistakes from 2016 with long-term deals to middling veterans, they can reset and try again with Butler, Leonard, Thompson and whoever else hits the market.
It is important to remember that the Lakers haven’t landed a major free agent in over two decades, although there are some reasons for that beyond players not wanting to be in L.A. Part of that is they didn’t need to add major stars during the Kobe-Shaq years or couldn’t with their cap situation, but even so, all of their big acquisitions since Shaq first signed with the Lakers in 1996 have come via trade or the draft. L.A. is a bit like New York as their reputation as a spender and major market lends themselves to being used as leverage in negotiations.
The last time the Lakers had big money, it went to Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov because they’d otherwise struck out on 2016’s top free agent stars. The Lakers will almost always get a meeting if they have the money, but the idea that stars will drop everything to get to L.A. is overblown. It’s wise of them to keep their options open for 2019 should this summer not go as planned. Should they be scorned by James, George and Cousins, look for them to possibly go the route the Sixers did with J.J. Redick and hand out major one-year deals to fill cap space but leave flexibility for yet another run at top stars in 2019.