In the days leading up to Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, concern over the Los Angeles Lakers’ rookie front office was hitting a fever pitch. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka reportedly weren’t happy with the offers coming in for either Jordan Clarkson or Julius Randle. Their already-thin chances at the superstars they promised were going the way of the hairline of their top target. Hell, Johnson’s own work ethic was being questioned, albeit from across the country.
Man, the difference a trade can make.
In one move, Johnson and Pelinka showed the ability to take advantage when opportunity presents itself, utilize the media for leverage, recognize value and pull the trigger on arguably the best trade made this season.
It also put a magnifying glass right on Johnson, himself. Pelinka and the rest of the front office did their job. Now it’s time for Laker fans to benefit from that magic charisma thousands of words were been written about upon his hiring.
At this point, everyone knows the details, but in case you’ve been spending the last 24 hours under the brick the Lakers have been making from the free throw line all season, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr., were sent to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and Cleveland’s 2018 first-round pick (top three protected).
Parting with Clarkson, who has gone from 46th overall pick to a 50-million-dollar man before our eyes and Nance’s incredible highlights and character obviously stings, but this was always going to be a numbers game. Seeing as Luol Deng’s contract has proven immovable enough for Magic to laugh at when asked about, it became a choice between keeping Clarkson and Julius Randle, whom teams were reluctant to part with a first-rounder for due to his impending free agency.
It would be interesting to find out whether Clarkson would bring back the expiring contracts by himself. I would imagine so, but that would be a suboptimal return. So, good on the front office for negotiating a first, even if the cost of business was sending Nance back to his hometown.
So, the Lakers have the cap space Magic has spoken of as if they’ve had it all along. That tone sealed either Clarkson or Randle’s fate right from the beginning of the new regime. Freeing up that space the way they did in yesterday’s trade warrants plenty of praise, but let’s not forget that this commitment to star chasing has now cost the Lakers D’Angelo Russell, Clarkson and Nance.
In yesterday’s trade, as of right now, the talent disparity is pretty heavily in favor of the guys currently getting ready to play their first game in wine and gold, not purple. Thomas has been terrible this year and that’s before you get to the locker room concerns he’s raised in three of the four organizations he’s played for. Frye is on the decline, as evidenced by his three-point shooting, which currently sits at the lowest rate since he was a Trail Blazer, nearly a decade ago. That pick trumps all and by quite a bit in terms of value, but make no mistake, the Lakers are a worse team right now than they were when they woke up Thursday morning.
(Brief sidenote: That pick is a freaking godsend. I cannot stress this enough. It gives the Lakers all kinds of options. Either the same scouting department that is batting damn near 1.000 on value for their picks will have another opportunity to find gold late in the first round or the front office can use it to surround whoever does agree to come with a little more immediate help. The Lakers were the only team to earn a first-round pick Thursday, and Magic and Pelinka both deserve a ton of credit for doing so. Okay fine that wasn’t very brief.)
If they land a couple superstars this summer and/or the next, great! Russell’s upside won’t particularly matter because it’s doubtful he ever becomes as good as whichever combination of stars take his place and while Clarkson and Nance might develop into nice role players, they’re pretty replaceable.
But if the Lakers strike out the next two summers, yeesh. Russell seems like a great fit alongside Lonzo Ball, especially given the latter’s defensive development. Clarkson would be a nice combo guard to provide scoring off the bench and could play with either if Luke Walton wanted to stagger minutes. Nance and Randle never quite figured it out together, but if the core developed properly, he’d be a great glue energy and glue guy to bring in off the bench at either big position. The ceiling on that team would obviously be lower, but the floor would probably be higher. Though that’s a bridge that can be crossed when that time comes.
Right now, fans can celebrate. The team is playing great, it looks like Magic and Pelinka might know what they’re doing after all and things are lining up around the league for a nice opportunity this coming summer. I mean, the Cavs themselves handed the Lakers the flexibility needed to at least start a sales pitch with LeBron James and/or Paul George. That sure was nice of them. This is by far the best place the Lakers have been in since Kobe’s achilles was still whole.
In a few months, though, the focus for will be squarely on the man who said he alone could fix this organization. They can recalibrate expectations all they want, but fans know what they were promised repeatedly during the media tour immediately following his hiring.
26 years and a few months ago, Magic stood on the podium and announced his immediate retirement and, in the eyes of many, impending death via HIV/AIDS. It was one of two times I’ve seen tears in my dad’s eyes (the second being just a couple weeks ago, when his mom died).
There’s a Hollywood ending to be written here. City’s brightest star not only beats back disease the same way he beat those damn Celtics, but actually thrives — and does so well enough to one day turn around the franchise he did the way he was drafted.
It’s right there, Magic, and as Chick Hearn once said, you’d be do something.