After the annual run of pre-draft workouts, where they drafted Max Christie with the 35th overall pick, the Los Angeles Lakers are back in a familiar part of the off-season, free agency. Historically, the Lakers have made their name landing big free-agent acquisitions, whether it be Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, both being traded to LA within a span of a decade, or Shaquille O’Neal signing in 1996 thanks to the brilliant general manager work by Jerry West at the time. The Lakers have maintained their status as the greatest franchise in modern basketball and possibly all of sports (obviously Celtics fans will tell you differently, but the fact is Boston hasn’t won 12 titles since the NBA expanded their initial 8-team league system from the 1960s). If you ask most Laker fans, trading for Anthony Davis in 2019 (yet another summer splash for the decorated California sports team, and yes, another hall of fame big man) was worth it because of the 2020 championship that they won. Some may say that playing in the bubble, due to the resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic, helped Davis in staying healthy and an asterisk must be placed next to that NBA title, but removing all biases, a title is a title.
If that’s the case, then what now? Where do the Lakers go from here? Should they continue to try to build around the aging core of Davis, LeBron James, and Russell Westbrook, or should they consider trading for Kyrie Irving, the biggest superstar prospect of this summer (or possibly even Irving’s teammate Kevin Durant, depending on his future with the Brooklyn Nets)? As of this writing, Irving has decided to opt-in for $37 million and stay with the Nets. Frank Vogel clearly took the most heat, as he lost his head coaching position before the 2021-22 season even ended, but was he the primary reason why the Lakers stunk up the gym night in and night out? Many have called this team the most disappointing in history, as they were a top 3 title contender before the season began. In Lakers lore, I think they’re clearly worse than the 2004 Lakers (Karl Malone and Gary Payton hopping on the bandwagon late in their careers paved the way for the Boston big 4 and LeBron’s “decision”) since that team at least made the NBA Finals and the 2013 Lakers, who were riddled with injuries and a coach unfit to run a team with two big men at its core.
If you’re a Lakers fan (or hater), you might be asking this question: where does the writer of this article stand in all this? Should I even listen to this guy if his agenda differs from mine? I started watching basketball around 2010. I was a diehard fan of the late great Kobe Bryant and seeing him win his 5th championship and eventually, early retirement was a privilege, as he was a true savant of his profession going to work every night. When he tore his Achilles tendon in 2013, it naturally became more difficult to follow the team as they became a lackluster NBA lottery team as the 2010s decade went along. They drafted promising young talent but ended up trading them all away. The most promising is Brandon Ingram, who led the New Orleans Pelicans to the playoffs this year while the Lakers didn’t even make the play-in. LeBron fans will tell you I’m biased against the Lakers because I’m a Kobe fan, and guess what, they’re damn right. There’s no question LeBron is one of the all-time greats, many analysts and players have him in the top 5, some even saying he’s the greatest or second greatest behind Michael Jordan, who you may have heard of. I’m not necessarily saying I’m waiting for him to retire, but what more is there to prove for him if he truly is the greatest?
Ring count aside (in which he still has to catch Kobe, Magic Johnson, and Tim Duncan before reaching Jordan’s 6 title count), is he simply coasting into retirement or perhaps waiting to play with his son Bronny? Does part of him want to prove that the Lakers title wasn’t a fluke and that the team missing the playoffs twice during his tenure was bad luck? I’m not rooting against LeBron, I want the Lakers to do well, but the number of embarrassing losses certainly hasn’t helped me cling on to my proverbial season tickets. It’s clear what the Lakers’ problems are, it’s how to fix it that is the real headscratcher. How many teams, specifically lottery teams, want Russ? Is AD a reliable first or second option on a title team outside of a shortened playoff stretch, where teams got five months off before resuming play? It’s the Lakers, so I think they should go big and try to steal KD or Kyrie, as Brooklyn has proven to be an incompetently run NBA team this past year (though at least they made the playoffs despite injuries and an anti-vaxxer as their second option).
The Lakers chances as a legitimate title contender rests but do not rely solely on LeBron and Klutch sports decision-making, they ultimately belong to the Buss family. HBO series Winning Time reminds us of the days that the late Dr. Jerry Buss ran the team and oversaw 10 NBA championships in the process (two separate dynasties, possibly three, if you count the Kobe-Pau Gasol years as its own reign, three straight finals appearances and a handful of MVP trophies for the Black Mamba). It also reminds us of how underwhelming Jeanie’s run has been. She has surrounded herself with Laker veterans who are simply out of touch as former coach Phil Jackson hasn’t adjusted to the way the game is played today (look no further than his contributions as GM of the New York Knicks) and Kurt Rambis has an even older mentality on how you win basketball games. Rob Pelinka isn’t exactly a master at his job either as he’s given a pass for his days as Kobe’s agent.
We can go on and on with the blame game, whether it’s Davis’ inability to stay healthy, Westbrook’s decline as a competent NBA player since his speed went out the window, or James’ coasting through the 82-game season as he feels there’s nothing left to prove. What about the mediocre supporting cast, Pelinka, and Buss being incapable of running a front office that doesn’t give away all its assets, etc. The point is intelligent moves have to be made in order to salvage the rest of the Bron/AD era, especially with James’ looming retirement and Davis’s injury track record. Westbrook clearly is the piece that does not fit the puzzle and finding a way to deal him for solid bench pieces is the way to go. If an opportunity to send him to Brooklyn for Kyrie opens up, no question it should be taken. Any road map that includes acquiring an all-star and ditching their current big 3 must be driven through. If you want to go really bold, then both Jeanie and Pelinka should step down. Jeanie should sell the team, and a competent GM should take Rob’s place. Ideally, Jerry West would be the golden savior, but he clearly has his reasons to not help the Lakers, as he is pulling the strings for their Crypto.com Arena (still hurts to read, write or say its new name. Staples forever) neighbor Clippers. We’ll see if a big and bold move will be made this July.