It says a ton about the Lakers’ decision making in free agency that their grade has so far been pegged at middling. Any offseason that nets LeBron James should automatically be rated an A+, and yet they’re seen to have produced an incomplete at best. At question is what they did after the finest of the brightest of the National Basketball Association by far committed to joining them, and for the medium term. With him on board, their intrinsic advantages tied to robust salary cap space figured to lure in vital cogs. Instead, they wound up with a bunch of third-tier players possessing questionable fit.
Needless to say, it’s not how general manager Rob Pelinka sees the Lakers’ position. As far as he’s concerned, they’re right on schedule in their plan to ultimately challenge for the hardware; they went after assets that will allow them to go against the grain while maintaining cap flexibility. “We purposely wanted this team to be built very differently than the past ones [James] has played with,” he said in a press conference yesterday. He was responding to queries on why they didn’t follow the blueprint that spelled success for the four-time Most Valuable Player in previous campaigns: Surround him with shooters, and then let him weave his magic.
Granted, Pelinka has a point. Riffing off on the classic definition of insanity as doing the same things over and over again but expecting a different result, he noted that “to try to play the Warriors at their own game is a trap. No one’s going to beat them at their own game.” That said, it’s a stretch to deem the additions of Lance Stephenson and Rajon Rondo (who, like James, require the ball to be most effective) and JaVale McGee (who needs threats around him to scavenge around the basket with consistency) as major steps in the right direction.
There’s a silver lining, of course. The Lakers have James, and his remarkable skill set serves to cure myriad ills. Then again, it’s precisely because they do that their approach to the 2018-2019 season has invited scrutiny. You don’t punt when you have him on board; you maximize your time with him by swinging for the fences. As Pelinka himself pointed out, “we celebrate one thing; that’s NBA championships.” Which, it must be argued, won’t be within reach when he’s surrounded by youthful talent and veteran experience that collectively don’t crowd the top.
To be fair, President and living legend Magic Johnson did preach patience and underscore that his was a two-year window. He’s asking for trust, and, creditably, he got it from James. And, for a while, the fans will indulge him because of his cachet. Sooner rather than later, though, the relevance that he helped give the Lakers anew will have to lead to recognition.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.