Since the Warriors downed the Cavs to take the 2017 NBA title back on June 12, NBA teams have undergone a number of changes over the long summer offseason.
NBA.com's Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise -- from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2016-17 to the team with the best regular-season record -- as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.
Today's team: Los Angeles Lakers
2016-17 Record: 26-56
Who’s new: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (free agency), Brook Lopez (trade with Nets), Lonzo Ball (Draft), Josh Hart (Draft), Kyle Kuzma (Draft)
Who’s gone: D'Angelo Russell, Timofey Mozgov, Nick Young
The lowdown: One of the endearing symbols of the Laker franchise is the 90-watt smile of Magic Johnson, which was flashed regularly during the Showtime 1980s when the Lakers made a habit of embracing, as Magic called it then, “winnin’ time.”
Last month Magic was smiling again, and embracing winning, and this was after the Lakers won the Las Vegas Summer League title. He’s now running the Lakers along with new GM Rob Pelinka, and there’s plenty of enthusiasm once again in Lakerland. That's not only because of the new regime in place, but also because of the initial decisions that suggest a turnaround is very possible.
Magic and Pelinka aggressively and swiftly sought to undo the damage by Jim Buss by dumping the odorous contract belonging to Timofey Mozgov, who was signed two summers ago by Buss. In order to do that, they had to sacrifice D'Angelo Russell, who’s only 20, but there was a method behind the move: Not only did it free up money for next season and give the Lakers a shot at A-list free agents, but Russell was suddenly expendable once the Lakers got lucky in the Draft lottery and got the No. 2 overall pick.
It seemed like destiny that the Lakers would win that pick and choose Lonzo Ball. He’s Southern California born and raised and patterned his game after Magic, which means he’s a rare past-first point guard. Much has been made of Ball’s funky shooting motion, and he fed the skeptics by shooting poorly in Summer League. But Ball's rare, unteachable passing gift is what made him irresistible to Magic.
Ball sees the floor and finds teammates for easy buckets. Therefore, he can raise the value of his teammates. The Lakers will live with Ball's shooting until it improves and they also understand that Ball is very clever at attacking the rim. Meanwhile, the passing and court vision will allow the Lakers to center their offense around him. And as an added bonus, the entertainment factor caused by Ball will revive the fan base.
As a bonus in the deal with the Nets, the Lakers got Brooklyn's No. 1 pick in 2017, which became Kyle Kuzma. He was a revelation during Summer League, boasting a very smooth game, decent 3-point shooting and athletic ability. He’s graceful at 6-foot-9 and might push for decent minutes this season.
In the Russell trade the Lakers also came away with Brook Lopez, another reason to like the deal from the Lakers’ end. Lopez, 29, was the fourth-best scoring center in the NBA last season and a considerable upgrade from Mozgov. Lopez, however, is a half-court player and could conflict with the up-tempo style Ball that the Lakers might adopt under coach Luke Walton. As a bonus, Lopez's contract is up after this season, and that helps the Lakers maintain valuable flexibility.
With that in mind, the Lakers signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a one-year deal. This was another stroke of good fortune for the Lakers, that Caldwell-Pope sat on the market while the money dried up elsewhere. He’ll get a nice one-year paycheck ($17 million) and the chance to show that he belongs, in case the Lakers decide next summer that he can fit long-term. He’s a solid defender and streaky shooter (39.9 percent last season in Detroit) who might benefit from playing alongside Ball. He should be a capable replacement for Nick Young, without the goofiness.
There’s a bigger picture here: Magic and Pelinka, who was the agent to Kobe Bryant, are trying to save cap space for an A-list player who’ll be available in the summer of 2018. That could be Paul George, who negotiated his way out of Indiana and, for the time being, is in Oklahoma City. Or perhaps the big whale, LeBron James, who’s also a free agent then. Anything is on the table because Magic and Pelinka are busy moving mountains, although one in particular, Luol Deng’s remaining three years at $17 million per, will test them.
The Lakers were adamant about not trading Brandon Ingram in a deal for George before he was routed to OKC. The feeling is George will willingly come to LA and it’ll cost the Lakers nothing except money. if so, that would give the Lakers a core of George, Ingram, Ball, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, possibly Caldwell-Pope, Lopez and ... LeBron?
Cleaning up the cap, bringing in top rookies, developing young players currently on the roster and dangling some players as trade bait is what the Lakers plan to do between now and next summer. It’s all part of the blueprint laid out by Johnson, who believes he can make the Lakers a destination franchise once again.
He has a pass-first point guard who could be attractive to free agents, and that’s a start. The Lakers aren’t ready to elevate in the NBA just yet but suddenly everyone’s aware of what they’re capable of doing. For now, that’s enough.
Coming Next: Philadelphia 76ers
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