The Los Angeles Lakers are “recalibrating their focus” from a two-star pursuit in the 2018 free-agent class of LeBron James, Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins to a 2019 one featuring Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Jimmy Butler, according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Adrian Wojnarowski.
Or, as I read it: The Lakers can’t find any trade deadline deals for Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson that don’t mortgage their future, so all potential suitors should increase their offers now, please.
Cousins’ Achilles injury, George’s success with the Oklahoma City Thunder and James’ purported requirement of playing with another star in his prime have soured the Lakers on the long-shot possibility of recruiting two max-contracted free agents this coming summer, according to the report.
Or, as I read it: After a year of selling the idea of signing big-name free agents in 2018, to the point they were fined for tampering, the Lakers would like their fans to temper their excitement, thank you.
Pairing James and George was always tenuous for the Lakers, even as the former stockpiles real estate in L.A. and the latter continues to say publicly, “Of course, L.A. is home, so that’s always going draw the attention. But we’ll see. I won’t rule anything out, but I’m definitely happy where I’m at.” It will be difficult for a subpar Lakers team to pry George away from Russell Westbrook and the possibility of playing for a Western Conference finals contender in OKC, and even more difficult to lure James from his hometown team and every other organization that will be contending for his services this summer.
This was always the case. It’s just not the bill of goods the Lakers sold their fans for the past year.
And LeBron is still Plan A, right? The Lakers have made no secret about their pursuit of the requisite cap space for two high-profile free agents in 2018 free agency, with little regard for the future of Clarkson, Randle and every other salary standing in the way. And now, two days before the trade deadline, the focus has turned to 2019? What’s changed since Magic Johnson almost immediately shared this plan upon being hired as president of basketball operations midway through last season?
Well, the possibility of James and/or George joining a team that is probably still more than those two stars away from contention is becoming increasingly unrealistic. And it doesn’t help that nobody’s bidding for the right to assume the $40 million left on Clarkson’s contract through 2020 or to pay Randle a similar chunk of change in restricted free agency — not without more value added to those salary dumps, akin to the deal that attached D’Angelo Russell to Timofey Mozgov’s ridiculous salary in last summer’s trade with the Brooklyn Nets. Teams either want the Lakers to take salary back in return or give up picks, neither of which helps their cause of building around two star additions now or later.
The Lakers are desperate, everybody knows it, and nobody really wants to help them, absent some added incentive. So, the Lakers will pretend this recent stretch of 10 wins in 14 games — during which Clarkson and Randle have averaged a combined 32.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists — makes it any more likely that they’re committed to them long-term. It does not. They still need to get Clarkson’s contract off their books and still can’t sign Randle this summer if they “recalibrate their focus” to 2019.
And of course 2019 free agency is the backup plan. Magic told us as much in December, when he said:
“Now, we have cap space for probably two max guys, but that’s not to say we’ll use both of them. We want to if we can, but we have a Plan A and we have Plan B. Say we only get one of those guys, then we’ll make a decision on not to use the cap space. We can do that and save it for the class that’s coming the next year. We’re not going to give money away just because we have the cap space. I’m not about that.”
The Lakers do not have cap space for two max contracts in 2018. They also won’t in 2019. Not without dumping Clarkson and Randle. Not without clearing Luol Deng’s deal from their books with the stretch provision. The recalibration is just L.A. coming to grips with the reality that their pursuit of George and James is becoming less and less likely, and not just because neither of them may be interested in playing with a core of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma that is still a work in progress.
The perception that they’re kicking the can down the road will help from a public relations standpoint if they can’t make a splash this summer. If the Lakers can’t find a trade partner for Clarkson now, they will have $54 million committed to 11 players in 2018-19 (excluding Randle), and that’s not enough to sign both James and George to max deals. But they will also still have $52 million committed to six players in 2019 — likely not enough to sign some combo of Leonard, Thompson and Butler, either.
Turning the focus to 2019 is just dangling that carrot out a little further in front of their fans.
Granted, it will be easier to dump Clarkson next summer, when he will represent a $13.4 million expiring salary, and the development of Ball, Ingram and Kuzma could help in 2019 recruitment, but they will lose Randle for nothing this summer. The Lakers would prefer if you take them off their hands now and help their flexibility in 2018, because miring in mediocrity is not the Lakers way.
There is risk in turning their attention to 2019, too. What if Ball shows no sign of progress? What if Ingram’s development stalls? What if Kuzma takes a step back? That won’t exactly help their pitch.
LeBron is still Plan A for everyone, and if that fails, the Lakers also wouldn’t mind if you help with their cap issues in 2019. And if securing any of the big-name free agents next summer proves equally difficult, as expected, they will recalibrate their focus to 2020. That’s how rebuilding in the NBA works.
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