The Los Angeles Lakers are sitting at home and watching the playoffs, but that does not mean that their season was a failure. In fact, you can argue that it was the opposite. Now they have set themselves up well for the upcoming 2018 summer. They have a first-round draft pick, and they have boatloads of cap space to use to attract stars like LeBron James and Paul George. And they can potentially attach their first-rounder or other young players to a guy like Luol Deng to create even more space.
However, just because you can do it, does not mean that you need to. Look at the Luol Deng, and Timofey Mozgov deals from two summers ago. It is like Mitch Kupchak, and Jim Buss participated in the historical spending spree around the league that summer just because they had the spare cash. There is no way that Mozgov should be getting $16 million and Deng $18 million a year.
Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka should be wary this summer and not go after star players in favor of jeopardizing the long-term future. They have a solid foundation that took a couple of years to build and they should not throw that all away. It is not necessary.
That means don’t mortgage the farm for a (potentially available) player like Kawhi Leonard, whose relationship with the Spurs appears to be on thin ice. Or an Anthony Davis, depending on what happens in the playoffs and with DeMarcus Cousins’ pending free agency, just to attract a Paul George and/or LeBron James.
And even if you do not do that, going all-in for LeBron James is not a sound strategy. Going after him would most likely mean Paul George, or another star, would be joining because James will not go to a team without another star, or two. That means letting Julius Randle walk unless you can move Deng’s contract, which looks virtually impossible right now unless you package a Brandon Ingram and/or Kyle Kuzma with him. And that would be a terrible move.
Also, is James that necessary? Yes, he would make the Lakers title contenders if grouped with George, Ingram, Kuzma, and Lonzo Ball. But is that team good enough to beat a healthy Warriors and Rockets team? Ingram, Kuzma, and Ball still have a lot of developing to do before they are vital ingredients on a championship-winning roster.
Adding James would be adding a 33-year-old guy with tons wear and tear on the body. Who knows how much longer he can stay elite, or even wants to continue playing? Those two points are big question marks that alone may not be worth it.
He would also assume the majority of the ball-handling duties, hurting the development of the younger guys, especially Ball, who is ineffective off the ball at the moment. Do not kid yourselves, wherever James goes means the offensive system will change.
They will not be able to field a good bench if they go for two guys this summer because of the financial limitations after that. And they would be preventing themselves from going after a Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, and even Kyrie Irving, should those guys become available as free agents in 2019. These are guys that are younger and better fits with what the Lakers are going for right now.
Going after just Paul George would be okay. The team would still have the flexibility of going after one of the aforementioned players next year. They could also package future picks to Deng next summer and move him. He will be an expiring contract then, and we know how much teams love those. And missing out on George would not be the end of the world. You have a collection of promising young talent that took a big step forward. You would be able to retain Randle and see what damage a young and fearless can do.
It would be an extra year of development and auditions for next year’s free agents. Doing your best to build from the ground up is how things should be done. The best process is the one where you develop your own young and cheap core through drafting and developing, then use the financial flexibility to add on to it.
Spending all the capital you have this year for potentially a third seed at best would not be the way to go. Keep the guys you have drafted and developed and add on slowly. The success will also be more special because that is how it always is with homegrown players. A process like this is not an immediate fix. It takes years. They should view the availability of these elite free agents as an opportune gift, rather than a right or expectation. Keep yourself flexible for future years because something special is building.