Whatever else you think of the Los Angeles Lakers, you have to admire their self-confidence. Most 17-win teams would not, for instance, demand an audience with the league's most sought-after free agent. The Lakers have not only done just that with Kevin Durant; they are incredulous at the idea that he might turn them down. A team source told ESPN's Chris Broussard this week, "I can't imagine Durant wouldn't talk to us. That would shock me." A three-year lottery run has not dented the Lakers' (historically well-founded) belief in their own magnificence.
The Lakers are still living in 1996. That summer, they signed Shaquille O'Neal away from a 60-win Orlando team by selling Shaq on life as a Laker megastar: massive off-court revenue, access to L.A.'s celebrity milieu, and side gigs in movies and music. They've been running that playbook ever since, with cratering returns. Dwight Howard passed in 2013, Carmelo Anthony in 2014. Last summer, their pitch to LaMarcus Aldridge became a public embarrassment, with Aldridge's camp making it known the presentation was too heavy on "outside opportunities," too light on basketball talk.
The Lakers have pledged to modernize their sales approach, as well they should. But as their methods are evolving, their goals are not. The Lakers' dream isn't to build a 41-win team around Bismack Biyombo. As one sees in their pursuit of Durant, they are always big-game hunting.
The problem is that neither Durant nor any other A-list star is about to sign with a team that just lost 65 games. In 1995-96, the last Lakers season pre-Shaq, they went 53-29 behind rising young talents Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones. They also added a high-upside shooting guard named Kobe Bryant on draft night. Shaq was leaving a Finals contender, but he wasn't plunging into the abyss.
The Lakers need D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, and Brandon Ingram to be what Van Exel, Jones, and Kobe were 20 years ago: a talent core young and exciting enough to make top free agents think, OK, sure, I can envision winning titles with this crew. At that point, the collateral benefits of Lakerdom and life in L.A. could be persuasive.
In all likelihood, this version of the Lakers needs a season or two as proof of concept. All-NBA free agents will want to see that Russell, Ingram, and the rest can actually play and that Luke Walton lives up to the hype. To that end, the Lakers' goal should be 30 to 35 wins next season, and then they can take a shot at Russell Westbrook (and Durant, if, as many expect, he is once again a free agent). If Westbrook doesn't bite, level up to 40 or 45 wins and take shot at Boogie Cousins in 2018. This strategy requires free agent signings who improve the team incrementally but don't command so much money they blow the cap space you need for a superstar down the line.
Sinking that bank shot would be tricky enough in normal circumstances. Complicating things is ongoing palace intrigue among the Buss siblings, who own a majority of the team. Earlier this week, the well-connected Kevin Ding, of Bleacher Report, ran an anonymously sourced hit piece on Jim Buss, who oversees basketball operations. The article portrays Buss as a nitwit with a horrendous work ethic, prone to making laughable guarantees that top free agents (Howard, Anthony, Durant, even LeBron James) would sign with the Lakers. Giving some idea of his sources, Ding's piece is complimentary toward Jim's sister Jeanie, who runs the Lakers' business operations and in that role has the authority to fire Jim.
One senses she is close to doing so. As the Lakers have collapsed on Jim's watch, Jeanie has fought a proxy war against him through media allies. She periodically does radio interviews to remind everyone of Jim's April 2014 promise to step down if the Lakers are not contending for Western Conference championships in "three to four years," which Jim no doubt appreciates. Lacking Jeanie's sophistication and ruthlessness, he has no ability to fight back. At this point only Durant can save him.
Among Laker fans, Jeanie is the better-regarded sibling, but only because Jim is such an irresistible piñata. In two years at most and probably one, basketball ops will be Jeanie's portfolio. She will be on her own "three to four year" clock, and if her regime falters the pressure will build to sell the team. The fan base is aware that none of the Buss siblings got their current jobs on merit.
For now, Plan A for the Lakers should be, and appears to be, Hassan Whiteside. He's 27, he's excellent, and he fills the one position for which they don't have a starter penciled in. He wants a deal on July 1st, so the Lakers might be able to swipe him while Pat Riley chases Durant. Bismack Biyombo works fine as Plan B.
The Lakers also need a wing, and the idea of shoveling a max deal at Harrison Barnes has a lot of Laker fans perturbed. It shouldn't. He was cataclysmically bad in the Finals, but he does plenty well and he can slide to the four in smallball lineups to play alongside Ingram. Walton knows his game as well as anyone, so if he blesses a Barnes signing Laker fans should feel reassured. Whiteside, Biyombo, and Barnes should all retain value well enough to keep their contracts moveable.
Because of the sword Jeanie has posed over Jim's head, his interests may not align with the organization's best free-agent strategy. What happens if the Lakers strike out on Whiteside, Biyombo, and Barnes? The right fallback move would be short-term signings of guys good enough to keep the Russell–Ingram core from getting slaughtered nightly. Joakim Noah and Luol Deng would be acceptable stopgaps. What cannot happen are panicky multiyear deals for down-list options like Ian Mahinmi and Jamal Crawford.
The Lakers have been reasonably good at avoiding those mistakes. The worst contract they've given out recently, Nick Young's five-year deal, was modest enough in size as not to be crippling (though it would behoove the Lakers to find a taker for it). When they whiffed on Howard, Anthony, and Aldridge, the Lakers settled into stealth tank mode, letting the losses accumulate to preserve the draft picks that became Russell and Ingram.
That squalid era is over. Winning games is again the priority, so "superstar or bust" can no longer be the team's guiding principle. Another 1996 might be attainable, but not until the Lakers rebuild the foundation that made that summer possible.
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