The NBA’s premier brand is back – well maybe. The Lakers front office made a huge first step in their freshly-minted reign in Los Angeles as they traded D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov for Brook Lopez and the 27th overall pick in the 2017 draft. This dispels any doubt of what the Lakers want going forward. After years of irrelevance, with rumors whispering of Paul George’s impending arrival to Los Angeles, it’s clear that the Lakers desire is the same as it’s always been; to win another championship, and to do it as quick as possible.
CBS Sports’ Matt Moore wrote a great article on the return of Lakers’ exceptionalism. Moore was correct, and if George does join Los Angeles, the Lakers will be in the playoffs and will have the world watching their every move. The league was in an incredible place during the Lakers’ mediocre stretch and it should improve even more as the Lakers thrust themselves back into the limelight.
But, what if the Lakers aren’t that exceptional?
Lakers’ exceptionalism is extreme, but one of a kind in that you are only content with championships. That same desperation for a championship has led the Lakers’ brand to do some surprising things. In the face of accepting a rebuild, the Lakers buck the trend and walk their own path. This same path led them to overpaying for Nash, failing to woo Aldridge, and will probably lead them to make more mistakes in the future.
It isn’t necessarily shocking that the Lakers are clinging to the need to compete now, to be in the limelight. It’s worked out more often than not. Trading a young Marc Gasol for his brother Pau comes to mind, a stroke of genius that led Los Angeles to a few titles in a period of time that lacked stability. This deal isn’t the same thing, by any means, but the mindset that led to this deal is the same as it was back then.
A huge benefit of the Russell-Lopez trade is the relegation of Mozgov’s contract to Brooklyn. This will open up the path to clearing enough space to sign two max-contract players. Assuming one of those guys is Paul George, the Lakers have a few options in superstars for 2018. They could come up big by signing Los Angeles native Russell Westbrook, big-man extraordinaire DeMarcus Cousins, or even LeBron James himself.
A core group of what could be Lonzo Ball, Paul George, Brandon Ingram, and another superstar is massive compared to the dreadful Byron Scott-led teams we’ve seen at Staples Center. But, is it all for naught? Does that team really challenge the Golden State Warriors? Are they even the second seed in the Western Conference?
It seems bullish to challenge the Warriors and bank on their decline when your two new stars will most likely share that same decline. Does the Lakers’ best-case scenario of James and George really push the needle forward?
Those questions don’t need to be answered right away. Fans will happily accept the sorely-missed sight of the playoffs – even if the last sight of playoffs involved Dwight Howard and the Lakers being swept off the floor, a season that ended poorly due to the same Lakers’ exceptionalism that hurdles them forward right now.
None of the previously mentioned moves will reflect on Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, but this move will. The same mystical force still thrives in a brand new environment.
There isn’t a single guarantee that Russell would have become the savior the Lakers need, nor is it known if he will ever contribute enough to be a player conducive to winning.
In reality, none of this is about Russell. If you want that, go read Honi Ahmadian’s solid take on the trade. It’s about what Russell became a sacrifice for, a philosophy that has paid off for the Lakers more often than not. A philosophy that has also led to futility.
Beckon the return of Lakers’ exceptionalism.