How LeBron Came to the Lakers
LeBron is a Laker.
Exactly how that came about is a question best answered by the future Hall of Famer himself, whenever he first addresses his new NBA town in the coming weeks.
But the Lakers did have to do a few things to become a more attractive destination point and not just rely on what some in NBA circles consider inherent advantages, like L.A.’s history of championship success, and the city of Los Angeles itself. The team had to create salary cap space, and display legitimate young talent to open themselves to a transcendent talent coming its way.
Just after Jeanie Buss hired and empowered them, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka began that process in February of 2017, when they traded Lou Williams to Houston for Corey Brewer and a first round pick (which would become No. 28*). Then in June, they sent D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov for Brook Lopez and the No. 27 overall pick (which became Kyle Kuzma).
In February of 2018, they continued that process by moving Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the No. 25 pick (which became Moe Wagner). Because of varying contract lengths, these moves created more flexibility for the Lakers.
*On Draft Day in 2017, L.A. turned No. 28 into No. 30 (Josh Hart) and No. 42 (Thomas Bryant) in a trade with Utah.
Indeed, with all that activity, the Lakers created one full maximum salary slot for a player of LeBron’s ilk to enter, and they were within a few steps of creating a second slot, if had been needed, before signing free agents Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo. Moving forward, Magic and Pelinka can easily get back into max territory for the 2019 free agent class.
“We know we have two summers,” said Magic on June 26, before he’d secured LeBron’s commitment at a reported meeting of 6’9’’ Hall of Famers on July 1. “We’ll see what happens this summer. If we don’t sign who we think we can sign, we’ll turn our attention to next summer. We have the cap space and flexibility, we created that, and we’re looking forward to Sunday. But we’re not putting all our marbles into one summer. We understand we have two summers to add to what we’re building here. I told you before this is not going to get turned around overnight. We’re building something. We want sustainability.”
Pelinka's words from February touched on similar themes.
“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,” said Pelinka after they made the deal with Cleveland. “I think we, probably, more than any organization in the NBA right now, have the healthiest salary structure, the healthiest flexibility.”
Meanwhile, displaying the young talent has been an ongoing process. In 2017-18, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Ivica Zubac all showed flashes of strong play as L.A. won nine more games than in the previous campaign. The narrative had changed from seasons past, when the outside perception of the Lakers young players had yet to catch up to the potential.
“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.
The Lakers did lose one important part of their young core after renouncing their rights to Julius Randle, but those aforementioned five remain, as does 25-year-old Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who re-signed for a second season in Los Angeles. They also added Wagner, (No. 47 pick) Svi Mykhailiuk and (No. 39) Issac Bonga. While the talented 18-year-old Bonga, a 6’9’’ point guard from Germany, has some developing to do, the energetic space five in Wagner and sharpshooting wing Mykhailiuk are both off to strong starts in leading L.A. to a 2-0 start in the Las Vegas Summer League, and look like pieces Luke Walton can put onto the actual NBA floor come October.
Prior to free agency, Pelinka was asked if a team could both win now, and also keep a young core intact.
“The ideal scenario is to do both,” he answered. “Be able to win in the now but also have a young core you’re developing to win in the future. I think we’re ideally situated to do that. If you look at the landscape of the playoffs this past year, youth succeeded in some instances.
“The game is fast paced. The game is about quickness and athleticism, and you need young legs to do that. We feel like we can be really, really good right away, but also build sustainable winning. I don’t think leveraging the success of the future for a short now is the right thing to do. I think sustainable success is really our goal.”
By signing LeBron James outright into cap space, and not having to give anything back in return, the Lakers are suddenly quite a bit closer to doing “both,” as Pelinka stated.