The Los Angeles Lakers, from day one, have handled their free agency plans for the summer of 2018 nearly as poorly as possible. Since Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka took over the franchise just over a year ago and subsequently dealt Timofey Mozgov and D’Angelo Russell early in the summer, the focus has been laid out: 2018 free agency or bust.
The Lakers essentially walked up to a poker table, didn’t watch a single hand, laid their money on the table and announced that they were going all-in, no matter what cards they were dealt. Except, they did this after having busted out multiple times in the past and having declared bankruptcy once before.
And yet, here the Lakers stand in early February. The mindset hasn’t changed. The stance has softened marginally. But, despite their best efforts otherwise, the Lakers are in a great situation. In a sense, the flop was kind to them.
Julius Randle is having a career year. So is Jordan Clarkson. Kyle Kuzma was lightning in a bottle for much of the first half and appears to be the steal of the draft. Josh Hart has emerged as a bonafide NBA player with his recent stint in the starting lineup.
Even in the midst of early struggles, Lonzo Ball has shown the promise that led to him to be picked second overall. And the leaps and bounds in improvements made by Brandon Ingram have largely gone unnoticed by NBA casuals and non-Lakers fans.
The flop gave the Lakers a flush draw. And the Lakers are talking a big game. They haven’t changed their stance. It’s too late now. They’ve went all in. But things don’t look quite as grim, even if it’s still a longshot that everything works out in their favor.
The Lakers have worked themselves into a good position through the pieces, many of which they’ve vowed to trade, exceeding expectations. Clarkson and Randle, serving as inexperienced veterans on a roster chock full of youth, have guided the Lakers to a 21-31 mark. On the surface, that doesn’t look great but it has them on a 33-win pace which would be their best season in five years.
Similarly, the Lakers’ defensive rating this season is the lowest since that 2012-13 season. For the first time since the rebuild has started, there’s a discernible future that includes a talented young core.
And that’s the difference between this upcoming off-season as opposed to the fruitless efforts of years past. The Lakers aren’t walking into meetings with free agents with an already-aged superstar in Kobe Bryant and asking said free agent to play second fiddle. Instead, they’ll walk into a pitch meeting asking a free agent (or multiple free agents) to be the driving force that takes them to the next level.
And they’ve positioned themselves nicely to do so.
A deep dive into past marquee free agents who’ve made a jump reveals some interesting facts when compared to the current Lakers. If you ignore the fact that the instances of this happening are few and far between, then you’ll see the Lakers have the makeup of a team that will draw free agents.
As it stands with the 2017-18 Lakers, their balanced offensive attack sees seven players averaging at least 10 points per game with five of those players on pace for 1,000 points. Only one of the players averaging 10 points is over the age of 25 – Brook Lopez at 29 – and none of the players on pace for 1000 points is older than 25-year-old Clarkson.
Any jaunt down Memory Lane when talking free agency has to start with Shaquille O’Neal. The season prior to O’Neal joining, the Lakers boasted a core of Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, Cedric Ceballos and veterans Elden Campbell and Vlade Divac. Four of those guys – Ceballos, Campbell, Van Exel and Divac – all reached 1,000 points on the season.
As a team, the Lakers were far more successful than the current version, going 53-29 and making the playoffs as the fourth seed before losing to Houston in round one.
There aren’t many non-Lakers examples, or examples period, to look back on.
In 2004-05, Steve Nash left the Mavericks to join a Suns side that had a young core of 21-year-old Amar’e Stoudemire, 22-year-old Joe Johnson, 25-year-old Shawn Marion and 21-year-old Leandro Barbosa.
The Suns also were in a different scenario than the present Lakers in that they had a veteran star in Stephon Marbury who averaged 20.8 points and 8.3 assists, but they still won just 29 games on the season. Nash also wasn’t quite the high-profile free agent as he was 30 years old and had an injury history.
A little more different angle could be Carlos Boozer back in 2004. After two seasons with the Cavaliers, Boozer left Cleveland for a Utah team that, while having drafted Deron Williams, presented a core of 22-year-old Andrei Kirilenko and 24-year-old Carlos Arroyo. The team also brought in 25-year old Mehmet Okur, paying him and Boozer a combined nearly $120 million across six years.
The 2003-04 version of the Jazz went 42-40 before landing a pair of young free agents, again a better record than the current Lakers are destined for.
At the end of the day, there is no blueprint for what the Lakers are doing. No one walks up to a table, tells each player they’re going all in and have it work. But in order for it to succeed, the young Lakers needed to grow up quick and they have.
Ball is the perfect complementary point guard for a ball-dominant lead player. His low usage and high efficiency make him the perfect teammate for the situation. His 17.9 usage percentage is sixth on the Lakers. He’s one of only six players currently in the league with an assist percentage above 29 percent and a usage rate below 18 percent.
Ingram serves as a perfect wingman to pair with a premier player like Paul George or LeBron James. He’s the Andrew Wiggins that James never had. And his improvements made from his rookie to sophomore years are hard to grasp at times.
Kuzma has proven to be a scorer who can put up points in bunches. Hart looks like a potential defensive stud on the perimeter and a hard-nosed guard. Randle and Clarkson, whose futures may be up in the air, have very defined roles, the former a muscular specimen that is blooming into a defensive difference-maker and the latter a combo guard with an eye for the bucket from all three levels.
It all adds up to the Lakers being, somehow, despite their best efforts, in a position for it all to work out in their favor. Even if George and/or James come, the process won’t legitimize the results. But with half the other players having already folded and the other half in a limited position to call the Lakers’ bluff, this may all end up being the best bet in franchise history.