Magic and Pelinka’s Move Towards the Future

by Mike Trudell
Lakers Reporter

A couple of months ago, Magic Johnson had a conversation with his GM, Rob Pelinka, suggesting that it'd be great for the Lakers to get some salary cap flexibility and perhaps a first round pick before the trade deadline.

On Thursday morning, the Lakers did just that, acquiring Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye plus a top-three-protected 2018 first round draft pick from Cleveland in exchange for Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.

The Lakers accomplished three things with the trade: they opened up salary cap flexibility moving forward; they replaced a first-round pick (their own 2018 first rounder goes to Philly or Boston from the Steve Nash trade); and they brought in shooting without taking on additional salary past this season.

"This trade hit on all fronts," said Rob Pelinka, who spoke to media members alongside Johnson subsequent to Thursday's shootaround. "If you look at the pathway to the great, great teams and success in the NBA, most of the time it's through a road where a team has great flexibility and draft assets to seize opportunities to get the elite players in the game. I think we, probably, more than any organization in the NBA right now, have the healthiest salary structure, the healthiest flexibility."

Pelinka and Johnson mentioned that it was difficult to part with Nance and Clarkson, both of whom have been playing particularly well of late, but thought it was necessary given what was coming back. Nance goes back to his hometown of Cleveland, and both he and Clarkson get a chance to compete for a playoff team that has a chance to win the title.

"I think this is a transaction that works for everybody involved," said Pelinka.

Meanwhile, the big-picture focus for Magic Johnson remains simple.

"We want to get back to the playoffs, then we want to get back to being a championship team," he summarized. "This gives us the flexibility to achieve those things … one day, we can have a superstar or two come to this organization with our incredible young talent that we have that we will continue to grow."

Isaiah Thomas

How they acquire that eventual superstar or two could come in a variety of ways. Since the Lakers already have a bevy of young talent locked into rookie scale contracts – led by Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart – it's now simply about adding to it in the best way possible.

"Right now, (in) the NBA landscape, there's very little cap room, and the teams that have it are going to be able to use it in a great way," said Pelinka, who then detailed three options.

One: Re-sign your own guys. "Keep some of your own players, and that's something we'll evaluate." He specifically mentioned that Julius Randle has been playing "outstanding" of late, then noted that KCP, Brook Lopez, Thomas and Frye are also free agents to be.

Two: A trade. "You can also use it to do a great trade, if there's a team that's trying to get off a player, a potential star … Or you can take salary into your space and get draft assets." In other words, the Lakers could either use the space to trade for a player they covet, or for one that a team wants to unload and has to use a draft asset to do so.

Three: Sign Free Agents: "We now have in July of 2018 and July of 2019, 100 percent space to do two max players if that's what we decide to do ... the flexibility is really amazing." Pelinka noted that the Lakers could sign two max players in 2018, or one in 2018 and one in 2019, or two in 2019. Or just "stick with our young core growing these guys."

Significantly, while making all of that happen, the Lakers were able to keep their young core of players intact.

"Around the league, the number of calls we got on our young players was staggering," said Pelinka. "I think it's a reassurance that we drafted really, really good players.

He noted Josh Hart's recent emergence, in posting three straight point/rebound double-doubles as a starter, which "doesn't happen for a guard." He mentioned Brandon Ingram's obvious growth. He stated the clear impact Ball has had and how he's going to be back soon. He discussed Kyle Kuzma as a guy "people say has been the steal of the draft." And he noted how well Thomas Bryant has played for the South Bay Lakers.

Magic mentioned the "outstanding job on every player" that Asst. GM/Director of Scouting Jesse Buss and his staff have done. They got Kuzma at No. 27, Hart at 30 and Bryant at 42 this year, not to mention Clarkson at 46, Nance, Jr. at 27 and Ivica Zubac at 32 in years past.

The success L.A. have had in the Draft in recent years certainly motivated the decision to make this move that included Cleveland's first rounder (currently No. 24). They can either keep the pick, or move it in a different deal.

"We feel very confident that with this new first round draft pick we got today, we're going to have another player that's suited and tailored to that young core," said Pelinka. "When the right elite player or players coming along, we'll seize that and add them to our young core."

As for how the trade impacts the Lakers, who have won 11 of their last 15 games, this season? We'll save the larger part of that discussion for a further day, but in short: Ball should be back soon, and he's clearly the starting point guard, and there's no reason to think he won't still be paired with KCP. Thomas can certainly slide into Clarkson's role as a bench scorer with the chance to finish games when he's rolling, while Frye can claim some of Nance, Jr.'s bench minutes.

Luke Walton said he'll worry about all that after he gets through Thursday evening's game.

Luke Walton

"My top concern right now is Oklahoma City," he explained. "A lot of what we're going to do and how we're best going to use (Thomas and Frye) isn't going to be answered until they get here, and we see them play, what they can do and who they work well with. Even that takes time."

Walton was also asked his thoughts on the trade after shootaround, and noted how difficult it is to lose players you develop, even while understanding the business elements and why it can ultimately be a good thing for the team.

"It's always tough," he said of the emotional side of seeing two players get moved. "You get close with these guys. And JC and Larry were a huge part of what we've been doing in the short time that we've been here. The whole time we've been here (they've) been bought into what we've been trying to do and elevated their games.

"They've been great teammates taking different roles … they're going to a good situation and will get to experience playoff basketball. I'm happy for them for that. But we'll miss them, and we're very thankful for what they've given us."

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