Lakers on the brink of a breakthrough

Dan Feldman
NBC Sports

The Lakers have been fined for tampering two years in a row.

Magic Johnson’s banal tweets while holding a ceremonial front-office position last year barely caused a murmur. The Lakers’ Paul George pursuit, seemingly comprised of commonly accepted tactics, became a major storyline because the Pacers – and, implicitly, their legion of backers – pushed the issue.

The subtext to the differing responses: The Lakers are again striking fear in their opponents.

The Lakers aren’t back, but a savvy summer has positioned them to regain their status as behemoth. After years of being saddled by Kobe Bryant’s extension and Jim Buss’ pledge, the Lakers can see a light at the end of the tunnel. Johnson has them poised to burst out of the darkness in 2018.

For now, the Lakers added two players better (Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) and another more valuable (Lonzo Ball) than anyone they had last season while clearing considerable cap space for next summer. They dumped Timofey Mozgov‘s toxic contract and held firm on not offering multi-year guarantees to anyone besides their three first-round picks.

The retooling came at a cost – chiefly 2015 No. 2 pick D'Angelo Russell, who was sent to the Nets with Mozgov for Lopez and a late first-rounder. But the upside justifies the risk in Los Angeles, where cap space goes further.

Though market matters, nothing recruits like winning, and the Lakers are better positioned to do that, too. Lopez is a good center whose floor spacing will help his new teammates. Caldwell-Pope is far better than anyone the Lakers could have expected to sign this summer while limiting themselves to one-year contracts, but a late entrance into unrestricted free agency and no satisfactory offers left him willing to sign short-term in Los Angeles and hit the market again next year. The Lakers should have their best season in five years, which could open doors.

George? LeBron James? Russell Westbrook? DeMarcus Cousins?

Two of those stars could be on the table next summer.

There’s still plenty of heavy lifting left to do. The Lakers want to dump Luol Deng (three years, $54 million remaining) and maybeJordan Clarkson (three years, $37.5 million). They also face a decision on Julius Randle, who’ll have a $12,447,727 cap hold as a restricted free agent next summer. Renouncing him to sign a star would obviously be fine, but the Lakers might try to trade him before the deadline and get value for him rather than hedging their bets next summer.

Signing a star is clearly the priority, but even if the Lakers strike out, rebuilding around Ball, Brandon Ingram, Randle and Larry Nance Jr. is fine. The Lakers have multiple paths to a bright future.

They even got the smaller moves right. The early returns on No. 27 pick Kyle Kuzma are promising, though I’d caution against reading too much into hot summer-league shooting. Josh Hart was a sound selection at No. 30. Re-signing Tyler Ennis for two years with the second unguaranteed was excellent value.

Johnson looks like he knows what he’s doing – especially because the Lakers avoided the harshest tampering penalties, like losing draft picks or being prohibited from signing George.

Ultimately, this summer was just a precursor to next. But everything is starting to line up.

Offseason grade: B+

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