Magic Johnson is aware that his reputation as a franchise savior — regardless of whether it’s deserved or fair — depends on the Lakers qualifying for the playoffs next year.
True, under his stewardship the Dodgers are compelling viewing — if anyone in Los Angeles has Spectrum SportsNet to view them in the first place. But even the prior ownership group knew the Dodgers owned a stocked minor-league system. The franchise was set to consistently win regardless of who cut the checks.
On the other hand, the Lakers have a random collection of lottery-pick level players and no specific sense of direction. In the NBA, that is a recipe for long-term irrelevance. Trust me, I now live in Orlando. The Magic are the definition of a team with a bevy of lottery players and no idea how to make them a winning team.
Simply put, Lakers fans think far too highly of D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson. Maybe Brandon Ingram is worth the hype, but putting the weight of this marquee franchise on those skinny shoulders might be a bit much to bear.
Moreover, coach Luke Walton did not answer the fundamental question — what direction is this team going? In other words, whose team is it? What does the method by which this team will learn to win. What type of team is it?
You watch the Golden State Warriors and you know how they approach the game. Same for the San Antonio Spurs. Heck, even the Atlanta Hawks, Houston Rockets and Washington Wizards have more of a defined approach to the game.
For the Lakers, this is their biggest problem heading into the upcoming season. If Walton can’t give ownership and players a vision, or if Johnson has a vision that Walton cannot produce, then I’m going to be the first to assert that everybody’s beloved former sixth man will have to go. I like him as a guy, but dem’s the breaks, dude.
How do the Lakers get from 26 wins to 40-plus wins? (Portland qualified for the playoffs with 41 wins this season.) I don’t have all the answers, but after careful consideration I know of only two easy decisions for the Lakers:
1) Russell has to go if they draft Lonzo Ball. The idea that Russell can function as a shooting guard seems pie-in-the-sky. He never played off the ball before. Moreover, Russell was given a poor role model when he broke into the league. What the hell was Jim Buss thinking by having a space case like Nick Young mentor Russell?
Russell developed bad habits. I don’t think of him as a bust, but drafting Ball gives the Lakers two of the same player. Moreover, drafting Ball sends a clear signal. The Lakers would indeed be his team. A big part of me thinks that’s why so many stories linking the Lakers and Ball exist. Taking Ball automatically removes the decision from Walton.
2) Pursue no top free agents other than power forward. Like the draft, this class is loaded with small forwards and point guards. The best option at power forward is likely Atlanta’s Paul Millsap, because I can’t see Blake Griffin leaving the Clippers. Free agent centers start with other team’s reserves. No thanks.
Signing Millsap, which I don’t particularly envision, likely sends Randle to the bench.
Everything else is up in the air. Everything. Because the Lakers have a glut of otherwise undistinguished lottery players. They’ve been inconsistent at best. The question for each player becomes: Is that from growing pains or are they just simply unreliable?
Trades for Paul George? Sure, I’ve read the rumors. Doing so would create a forward glut unless you send Ingram and/or Randle and/or Russell to Indiana. And George doesn’t fare well at power forward. So does that make Ingram the target to go? And by me saying that, is your immediate reaction But wait! Ingram’s got real potential here!
As you can see, that discussion alone leads to a headache.
So yeah, two answers are simple. Trade Russell if they take Ball. Save free agent money for the better group of players available next year.
But add at least 15 wins next season.
This is the job, Magic. I don’t have to tell you that.
One arrogant PS opinion: Being realistic here, the best starting five the Lakers can accomplish next year is Ball at the point, Dion Waiters as a shooting guard free agent signing if not one gained from a Russell trade, Ingram, George, Ivica Zubac. I can see that team push for 40 wins next year.