Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
LOS ANGELES — What the bold new taste of the Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka era boils down to is that they believe they will do what those others before them could not:
Deliver new Lakers superstars, and treat them like the winning kings they should be.
The daring trade, as reported by The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski, of D’Angelo Russell’s potential and Timofey Mozgov’s dreadful contract to the Brooklyn Nets for the No. 27 pick in the draft and Brook Lopez‘s expiring contract is Johnson and Pelinka betting on their ability to turn cap space into championship talent in the way that Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak assumed they could, too.
This is the new, but old, Plan A, moving forward in front of our very eyes.
The difference is that George’s reported desire to end up in L.A. gives the Lakers a sure thing that Buss and Kupchak never had. George’s proclamation to the Pacers front office, ensuring the Lakers won’t be forced to trade much to get him was one domino. Giving up on Russell just to unload Mozgov is another, as now the Lakers can fairly easily clear enough cap space to sign both George and another max player next summer.
But Pelinka is a logician. So while Johnson sets the ultimate course, Pelinka will detail Plans B, C, D, all the way to Z. Maybe the Lakers trade for George, maybe these Nos. 27 and 28 overall picks they hold Thursday don’t get moved and must turn into the cheap long-term labor next to superstars, maybe they sign DeMarcus Cousins…
There are tons of maybes here, but there have to be in rebuilds that always take a little luck, too.
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A core problem—perhaps the biggest structural flaw—sabotaging the previous regime was that Buss and Kupchak were never cut out to be builders. They were used to Lakers glory unfolding consistently and easily. Neither had the magnetism or verve to hustle and make something out of nothing.
Jerry Buss knew their limitations but hoped his son and longtime soldier Kupchak would avoid a rebuild with the addition of Dwight Howard. The plan was to set Jim up for an easy few years of glory and an early retirement.
With Howard now a bitter memory and the Jim dismissed (along with Kupchak) by his sister Jeanie, the Lakers are right back where they were before in a sense: believing that people will come, people will most definitely come.
This time, however, the team hopes to tap into the strengths of their new front office to deliver those stars.
For one, Pelinka knows agents. And in sending Russell to Brooklyn, he is offering Russell’s agent, Aaron Mintz a way to make one client happy by affording him another big stage (minus the shadows of Nick Young and Kobe Bryant) to make his name with the Nets while clearing a path for another Mintz client, George, to end up in L.A.
And if the Lakers have to give up more of their young core in trade for George instead of signing him outright later, he’ll be eligible to get much more money in the long term, something no superstar would ignore and exactly the rabbit-out-of-the-hat way Pelinka made his mark on the league as an agent before switching sides this year.
Danny Moloshok/Associated Press
Backroom dealings with agents to make players happy wasn’t a strong suit of Kupchak, who adhered tightly to following rules and norms to their letters. That said it’s still incumbent on Pelinka to prove his various plans lead to a real-world, star-powered destination.
In the meantime, Johnson’s belief in the next rookie point guard runs deep, which is why he told Lonzo Ball in their pre-draft meeting that he envisions him coming in to be a leader. But having that space to lead would have been nearly impossible had not Lakers coach Luke Walton concluded that Russell was not going to develop completely into what the Lakers wanted, and essentially make him a tradable asset.
Russell could and did improve with all the faith Walton tried to put in him from the beginning of last season, but Russell’s personality is not one that wins people over. Bottom line.
When you are as aloof as Russell and trying to sell experienced leaders such as Johnson and Walton on your leadership ability, that’s a dead end—no matter how good your pick-and-roll passing or shooting stroke might get.
True, this was definitely selling low on Russell, the 2015 No. 2 overall pick, as we suggested earlier this week. Yet there was also a risk that Russell’s value would drop even further after a year of Ball upstaging him in the Lakers’ offense (and Russell continuing to be a ghost in the Lakers’ defense).
And adding Lopez to the mix might do what Kupchak had hoped when he signed Mozgov. Lopez is a talented player and great locker-room personality (think Pau Gasol) who will unquestionably help the young Lakers win games in the coming season, much as Mozgov (and Luol Deng) were supposed to give the Lakers’ youngsters some veterans to help them move forward, but clearly did not.
Adam Hunger/Associated Press
After developing a three-point shot last season (134 threes made; Russell, by comparison, hit 135), Lopez also is now uniquely suited for Walton’s spread-floor system, while promising to protect the rim. Lopez, 29, is from North Hollywood and is a Southern California kid just like Ball and George. Indeed, part of the vision of Johnson and Pelinka is to maximize that local angle, so perhaps Lopez winds up staying for less money or does well enough to give the Lakers another asset.
But Lope’s arrival isn’t nearly the point. Rather, Mozgov’s departure is the key in this deal, opening up the financial space so someone truly worthy of superstar money comes.
And in that sense, the dry, sad final years of Jim Buss and Kupchak—and Bryant—could serve a very useful purpose in Lakers history.
No one wanted to come take the torch and pressure from arguably the greatest Laker ever, Bryant.
It’s far more appealing to come be a savior and revive this still-immensely popular NBA franchise from its darkest days.
That’s why Johnson didn’t think he needed Jerry West, who did unquestionably want back in with the Lakers before settling for a role in the Clippers‘ front office.
Johnson and Pelinka believe they can do this, which is why they’re not being shy in trying.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.