The Lakers are as much in the entertainment business as they are in the basketball business. Usually, the franchise plans on both of those businesses supporting each other, but this year the entertainment side has been able to thrive without much happening on the basketball end with the “Legacy” documentary series on Hulu, Magic Johnson’s own docu-series on Apple, and HBO’s scripted drama series “Winning Time”. That’s right… even when the Lakers themselves don’t want anything to do with content involving them, it still happens and it still entertains.
The organization is still controlling their narrative to be spun in a positive light despite the fact that their basketball product couldn’t be more down in the dumps. The team is coming off an 11th-seeded finish in the Western Conference, missing the play-in tournament that was specifically designed to let in teams like themselves. The Lakers won’t finish as the worst team in the NBA this upcoming season no matter how poor the roster is or how many injuries they incur, but think about this… is there any fanbase who has more apprehension about their team’s upcoming season than the Lakers’ faithful?
While the “Legacy” docu-series rolls on and Jeanie Buss does podcast after podcast to try and calm fans down, the front office is trying to vault the team back to championship contention.
Now… not in a few years… now.
That’s the right mindset to have with your team led by LeBron James, an other-worldly superstar who is still playing like one despite entering his 20th NBA season. And although he did sign a new extension that guarantees his time in L.A. through the 2023-24 season at least, there’s no guarantee that superstar play will last until this Christmas let alone the 2024 NBA Playoffs. With his running mate Anthony Davis also only guaranteed through that same season (both players have player options for the 2024-25 campaigns), the Lakers could wait until the 2023-24 season to really try and get back into “contender” status… but there are no guarantees in the future.
If the Lakers do have the urgency to get back on the path to a 2023 championship, they’ll have to remove a large roadblock in the form of Russell Westbrook. After the three players went 11-10 in games they played together, it seems nearly impossible that they could work well enough to form the nucleus of a true championship contender, even if the two best players of the trio were healthy for the entire season and playoffs. This is just the reality despite the optimism that new head coach Darvin Ham has been expressing all summer in Westbrook being a team player with an emphasis on defense to truly be the best third star he can be.
So, are the Lakers actually foolish enough to go against what everyone outside (and in some cases inside) of their organization believes in terms of what heights this Big Three can reach? Or are they just hesitant to sacrifice future flexibility in the form of salary cap as the last remaining possible deals — one with the Jazz and one with the Pacers — will be bringing back players with salaries that extend at least into the 2023-24 season?
I can understand the resistance to pull the trigger on one of these Westbrook deals at times. I’m sure they want to keep one first round pick to have at the trade deadline to make one last addition to what they hope to be a championship-contending roster after getting rid of Westbrook. And I slightly understand the resistance to eliminate cap space from their 2023 summer, although I would also counter that veterans on mid-to-large contracts could be just as valuable at the trade deadline as draft picks… but I digress.
Either way, that type of forward-looking mindset only works if the Lakers can walk away from the negotiation and still put out a quality team with LeBron, Davis, and Westbrook. All logic says they can’t. I’ve always been of the mindset that the Lakers would need to use one first round pick to offload Westbrook with another first round pick needed for a productive package of players coming back, and all indications point towards that being a reality in addition to a theory of mine.
The Lakers have to basically make a bad deal that at least gives them a chance at a championship or they waste another year of the twilight of LeBron’s career and the prime of AD’s. The franchise is down horrendous. But don’t worry, Lakers fans, Jeanie Buss has plenty of podcast and radio appearances to calm you down. In that radio appearance on SiriusXM, she stated that her father never tried to tank and that it’s her goal to always have the Lakers competing for a championship and yada, yada, yada.
It’s “gut check” time for Jeanie Buss, Rob Pelinka, and the rest of the Lakers franchise. Put up those two first round picks if necessary, or just shut up. Stop the interviews. Stop the leaks. No Lakers fan feels good about these things in the media and none of them produce any value for the team. Are you serious about trying to build a contender? If so, do what you and everyone around the NBA knows you must do. Get rid of Westbrook. If you don’t, it actually does seem like you’re trying to tank, knowing that this season will be a failure while trying to set yourself up for a splashy 2023 offseason. However, that may be just as risky of a bet (if not more) than trading away Russ and the two first round picks given the fact that LeBron and AD could be walking out the door in the 2024 offseason if they don’t like what happens over the next two years.
The Lakers have sold too much of their infrastructure up to this point to continue straddling the fence with the “present” on one side and the “future” on the other. It’s “put up or shut up” time… literally. Put up the two first round picks, or shut up. With two, maybe three weeks max until training camp starts, it’s time to make a decision.
Stop talking about how awesome the Lakers brand was and is. If it wasn’t for LeBron, the franchise may be going on a full decade of mediocrity at this point. So reward him by giving him a chance at giving the franchise number 18.