Last Thursday marked the third trade deadline for Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka and the Lakers front office that took over after the firing of Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak.
All three deadlines have passed without much fanfare but the Lakers have kept busy. In year one, Magic and company traded Lou Williams for a first-round pick. In year two, Jordan Clarkson’s contract was dumped alongside Larry Nance for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and a pick. In year three, Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala were acquired by a team desperately in need of shooters to reach the playoffs.
But what the Lakers have accrued in quantity, they have given back in quality.
For all the talk of how Johnson and Pelinka would revive an old-fashioned franchise, it’s been more of the same since the two have taken over: the same failures and mistakes, this time in a more spectacular and public fashion.
All of that has come to a head this season. Since signing LeBron James – an accomplishment, to be sure – Johnson and Pelinka have not given any cause for optimism that they can build the right team around him. It started with an ill-advised plan to surround the greatest point-forward of all time with other ball-handlers instead of shooters, a strategy that has blown up in the Lakers faces, forcing them to trade three assets (Svi Mykhailiuk, Ivica Zubac and a second round pick) to correct their mistake.
Before they swung those trades, the Lakers were involved in the most public negotiations of all time, with talks between they and the Pelicans leaking into the Twittersphere via both national and local news breakers. It was enough of a disaster to force Johnson to travel to Philadelphia to address the team about everyone being on the table for a potential blockbuster trade, an event that led to the team president being investigated for tampering for the third time in his short tenure.
The Lakers were later blown out by the 76ers and just lost to the Hawks.
It’s a time-honored tradition in Lakers Land, especially over the past decade: a lack of patience and star-chasing directly impacting the on-court product. Wash, rinse, repeat.
In fact, this regime’s entire formation and foundation have been based on that mantra.
Not including Brandon Ingram to trade for DeMarcus Cousins was the last gasp of the Buss-Kupchak era. Dumping D’Angelo Russell to get rid of a big salary on a lottery team was the defining transaction of the Johnson-Pelinka era until James brought his talents to Southern California.
But Russell serves as the template for why these short-sighted moves rarely work. The fourth-year pro is now an All-Star, albeit in the weaker East, and looks to finally be figuring things out. Ingram, meanwhile, is still growing into his potential and has shown more consistent flashes over the last month.
Turns out patience is a virtue.
The Lakers are skating this same line, again. That’s not to say that Anthony Davis is a player unworthy of trading the whole treasure chest of unknown and untapped potential for. In fact, I argued before the deadline that he was the exact player where that possibility made sense. But when the same decisions pile up, there is nothing subtle about how the Lakers operate.
Russell was traded in a salary dump. Julius Randle was let go because he was not prioritized by a front office licking its chops for free agents, including one represented by his agent. Ingram has been the topic of trades for two straight years. All three drafted before the Magic Johnson takeover and all three shunned or with one foot out the door at all times.
When the history exists and the leaks suggest that the Lakers were willing to trade every player but balked at including four first-round picks for Davis, it’s no surprise that the core of this organization would be suspicious and unmotivated.
So now, the Lakers are right where they started, on the outside of the playoffs looking in and needing a LeBron James regular-season takeover to even reach the postseason for the first time in six years.
They’re right where they started, with one aging star desperately needing help and no quick fixes on the horizon.
They’re right where they started, a team filled with veterans who will likely be in Los Angeles for one year before being tossed aside and young players waiting for the time the franchise will toss them aside like the last two.
They’re right where they started, searching for a scapegoat on the roster or on the sidelines.
The Lakers issue isn’t the 28-29 record they’re holding heading into the All-Star break. It’s not the coaching that has come into question and turned Luke Walton into a dead-man walking, potentially even if they make the playoffs. It’s not James’ pressure to make moves he approves of or the drafting and developing young players.
This is an organizational issue that starts from the top.
It’s an insanely profitable organization not investing money in the places where it can outbid all of its competitors, be it the coaching staff, training staff or analytics department. It’s a front office that believes good things will come easy because they’re in Los Angeles and LeBron James’ free agency decision only strengthened their resolve.
The Lakers believe they can cheat the system. That they can have other teams develop stars for them and steal them in their prime. That they can build a functional and lasting team without prioritizing their youth. That doesn’t work in the new NBA. Look at every top team in the NBA this year – the Warriors, Nuggets, Thunder, Bucks, Raptors, Sixers and Celtics – and you can draw a straight line from their current and future success to homegrown talent.
In June, Magic Johnson, in the mold of the man he replaced, boldly proclaimed that he would step down from his position if the Lakers did not land a star. Johnson got LeBron and if the franchise icon wasn’t the one leading the way, it’s safe to assume that James would have never made the league-altering decision to join the purple and gold.
But even with that massive win, Johnson has not proven that he cannot be the floor general for the next run of Lakers championships. Magic has one more summer to deliver on his promise, a summer to build a team – an actual team and not a band of misfits that will be gone after another underwhelming year.
How he builds that team – if he builds that team – is not a one-solution certainty. But if history has taught us one thing in the NBA, there are no easy fixes to problems as big as this.