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Many months and an old front office ago, Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss sat on the phone in discussions about potentially acquiring DeMarcus Cousins. Kupchak, a long-time servant of the Lakers, would not budge on the Kings’ asking price of Brandon Ingram. In the end, he lost his job days later, but the Lakers’ slow-rolling path of youth and development was still in place.
The new front office of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka brought with them excitement. Fresh faces with fresh mindsets and fresh approaches to a gloomy situation. The Lakers were stuck in their four-year long rut, but Magic and Pelinka weren’t going to step in and strip the young core in win-now moves. Patience was the key. Build up a young core, wait out the dynasty Warriors and be ready to take over years down the road.
At least that’s what they said.
On Tuesday, four months of lip service went down the drain. Magic, who called the Lakers’ young core “untouchable”, and Pelinka dealt a vital piece – the best piece – of that young core away in a salary dump to rid themselves of Timofey Mozgov’s terrible contract. And for what? A chance to potentially chase LeBron James in free agency? A chance to mortgage the future while chasing a star in the summer?
That sounds a lot like the group that was just run out of the front office.
Maybe the front office knows something fans don’t. Maybe they’re a lot closer to a Paul George trade than we realize. Maybe they’re far more certain they can land LeBron than ever before.
But what they did on Tuesday was reckless, careless and simply unnecessary. The Lakers did not have a move lined up that was contingent on them clearing cap space. They could have acquired George without needing to move either of the pair of albatross contracts on the books. There was no reason they couldn’t have made Tuesday’s move in, say, 365 days. At that point, you have a year under your belt, a clearer idea of which pieces of the young core fit and, most importantly, a much lower asking price for teams to take on Mozgov or Luol Deng’s contracts. It wouldn’t have taken a D’Angelo Russell to move the deal.
And that’s not even broaching the subject of trading away your team’s best player. Russell was polarizing, enigmatic and captivating, likely in that order. He was a special talent in a not-so-special situation. He was doomed from the start: a 19-year old kid thrust in the spotlight of the soon-to-be Kobe-less Lakers. He was the Chosen One.
But more than all the superlatives you could lob his way, he was good. Historically good. The list of players who matched his output at his age was short, often small enough to count on two hands. He was an uber-talented, young building block. He was objectively the team’s best player.
Certainly there were concerns about his maturity. But what 21-year old doesn’t have that? There were concerns about his willingness to be coached, one year removed from serving under the league’s worst coach ever. There were concerns about his health after a handful of relatively minor injuries.
But on a team devoid of talent, he was the best thing they had going. Moving him for nothing more than to dump a salary shows a stunning lack of foresight. Dealing away a proven talent for the opportunity to chase an aging LeBron in a year’s time is a move that can set a franchise back multiple years.
The end result may be George and James teaming in L.A. in a year’s time. Fans, myself included, will rejoice. But the result of this move will never vindicate the process. The Lakers made a big mistake on Tuesday. Let’s hope it doesn’t cost them dearly.