Moore: Don’t Bet Against the Lakers (At Least Not Yet)

Moore: Don’t Bet Against the Lakers (At Least Not Yet) article feature image
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Photo credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: LeBron James

  • Expectations were high for the 2018-19 Lakers after acquiring LeBron James, but things have been a mess since then. They failed to make the playoffs and have had a ton of front office turnover.
  • Matt Moore (@HPBasketball) gives his thoughts on the current situation and what to expect in free agency and beyond.

It’s been a slow process, understanding just how warped the Lakers are. After hiring Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson, there was a honeymoon period followed by uncertainty. No one really knew what to make of it around the league.

Then came last summer and the big coup! LeBron James! They had signed the best player in the world. Lakers Exceptionalism was back. This was followed immediately by the Lakers signing… Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee? But we talked ourselves into it, because, after all, this was the Lakers and it was LeBron James.

In time, of course, that proved foolish. The young core showed great signs, but it was as the season got worse. LeBron’s injury caved the roof in on the season, the team’s malcontentedness at being involved in the Anthony Davis trade talks buckled the walls and the injuries to the young core dropped the floor out.

There were gurglings towards the end of the season. Swamp burps from the scuttling L.A. media pool about various issues. Front office tension. Uncertainty about 1) LeBron’s happiness with how things had played out and 2) just how much of an influence his agent, Rich Paul, and the rest of LeBron’s ‘camp’ were having on the team. Questions about the team’s chances of attracting another star or pulling off the Davis trade in light of the colossal backfire of the season.

Then came Magic’s resignation, which was shocking but not shocking enough to be out of left field. More like “wow, didn’t think it would actually make it that far” than “where did this come from?”

And then, of course, the floodgates opened. Leaked emails. Rumors of family friends being involved in the decision-making process. No replacement as President of Basketball Operations. Failure to hire Monty Williams. Success at hiring Ty Lue… just kidding! Failure to hire him, too.

And on the day Frank Vogel was supposed to be introduced as the new coach — on what was supposed to be a normal, happy day for the franchise (even if Vogel was the third choice)…

None of this is a good look. None of it. Not the season, not the Anthony Davis situation, not the Magic Johnson resignation, not the Rob Pelinka promotion, not the coaching search. Hiring Frank Vogel is a good move, but we’ll have to see him handle the massive power dynamics in play at Staples to have real confidence he can thrive.

And yet… none of it really matters.


THE FUTURE

The Lakers have James, and while his defense took another step backward, his leadership is suspect and he suffered the first major injury of his career — he is still LeBron James. Their various trade packages include the No. 4 pick thanks to the lottery gods’ benevolence and three young players in Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram you can talk yourself into (along with Josh Hart).

There’s also, of course, the max salary spot available. At various times, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Kevin Durant have been linked to possibly signing with the Lakers in free agency, even as the Clippers are more heavily discussed as suitors.

It’s natural now, with the front office embroiled in drama and James sitting at home for his first playoffs since the Bush administration, to think that there’s no hope — that the empire’s resurgence was a mirage and the hard times will only get worse.

If we could get odds on a free agent — any of those above — signing with the Lakers? Those odds would have value at a plus number right now. The Westgate’s “Will the Lakers win a title by 2022 (when LeBron James’ contact expires)?” prop may not yet have value at +350, but if we could get odds on them winning a division title — or even the West — in that time, it may look different.

The key here is that we can’t look at this outside perception of the Lakers and think it translates to the free agents in question.

  • Kyrie Irving: Certified weird cat. May or may not believe Earth is flat. Prone to deep existential swings about basketball, the media and what it means while also starring in his own movie about an old man playing basketball.
  • Jimmy Butler: Certified weird cat. Unhappy in Minnesota with his old coach and a young core on the rise; he burned everything down. Unhappy in Philadelphia half the year and would be bailing on them after they lost a Game 7 in the second round on a buzzer-beater. Once tore his rear-view mirrors off his car because “he never looks back.”
  • Kevin Durant: Certified weird cat. Would be walking away from a potential three-peat dynasty that will do anything to keep him. Doesn’t want to be No. 2 to LeBron but may not be now. It would be out there, but so was Durant leaving the Thunder for the Warriors after they beat him.
  • Kawhi Leonard: Certified weird cat. Left the most stable, successful franchise of the past 20 years and did so in a cloud of angst that was (depending on who you talk to) either about an ongoing distrust of the way they handled his injury or the desire by certain people in his camp for him to play in a bigger market. Very quiet, very curt, hard to read. Who knows what he wants?
  • Kemba Walker: … Normal dude. If he goes there, it’s because they had the money and he was ready to leave Charlotte; you can’t blame him. Kemba’s pretty solid.

The point is: None of these guys beyond Walker can be categorized as ‘rational actors’ when it comes to the basketball decisions. And there are plenty of reasons why players would choose the Lakers that aren’t about basketball. Just ask LeBron.


THE LEBRON COROLLARY

After James signed with the Lakers, there were numerous reported pieces about how he had “earned the right to do what he wants.” The long and short of it is that L.A. made the most sense for him for his family with his sons playing high school ball and with his business ventures in entertainment, which have certainly grown over the last year.

If he was going to sign in L.A., it had to be with the Lakers, an iconic franchise, even if the Clippers would have actually meant, you know, a good team around him.

So, too, can those players choose to prioritize other things over basketball. Sure, the Lakers have questionable leadership and decision-making. But if a player wants to live in L.A. and doesn’t want to play for the Clippers because they remain the Clippers, then the Lakers remain a good choice.

(NOTE: I think this is horrendously short-sighted, and I’d rather build a new empire in Steve Ballmer’s new palace when it’s built than suck the marrow from a dying legacy, but again, to each their own.)

The point here is that no matter how bad things look for the Lakers, they’ll remain attractive because star players will simply see L.A., LeBron and prestige, and they’ll cling to the idea that it will be different because of them.

Kyrie Irving said the Celtics would be ready come playoff time because they had him. His being horribly, horribly wrong has nothing to do with the fact that he believed they’d be fine at the time.

So while we don’t have specific things to bet yet — win totals won’t be out for another three months and title odds don’t hold value with so many good teams in the West and a full free agency to come — don’t count them out. Don’t bet against them.

Lakers exceptionalism may be dead for the moment, but its return requires only one decision that has nothing to do with basketball at all.

Now, if they were to land such a temperamental star and then have the same roster issues with a coach who’s never had this kind of star power to manage?

That’s when it’ll be time to fade the Lakers.