The Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets officially kicked the NBA's 2017 offseason into high gear on Wednesday afternoon with a trade that may re-shape the entire NBA.
In their second significant deal since taking over as president and general manager of the Lakers respectively, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka tossed a wrecking ball at L.A.'s steady rebuild by attaching D'Angelo Russell to Timofey Mozgov's anvil of a contract, then dumping both on the Nets for Brook Lopez's expiring deal and the 27th overall pick in Tuesday's draft.
It's a significant event for both teams, but may eventually become known as the deal that turned the spotlight back on Southern California as a destination for the league's main attractions. It has seismic potential, so let's start in Hollywood. The Lakers wouldn't have made this deal had they not landed the second overall pick in this year's draft, but they did, and with it they'll slide Lonzo Ball right into Russell's spot as the starting point guard.
The immediate question from there is how does this impact their hunt for Paul George? If Nick Young opts out of his deal, the Lakers can take George into their cap space by sending Julius Randle and David Nwaba's contract to the Indiana Pacers. (L.A. also has the 27th and 28th overall picks at their disposal to sweeten the deal, if necessary.)
A trade provides L.A. with George's Bird Rights next summer, when he opts out of his current deal and becomes an unrestricted free agent who's able and willing to sign a five-year maximum contract.
Free of the burden of Mozgov's atrocious contract, the Lakers also have a much cleaner path to pairing George with another max player (LeBron James, DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, etc.) next summer—though dumping Jordan Clarkson before then may still be necessary.
That's hopeful news, but in a vacuum cutting Russell loose as a way to get rid of an excessive contract is amateur hour. Maybe the Lakers felt like this was their best shot to unload that money, and they had to strike when the opportunity presented itself. But a savvier front office would've waited for the asking price to come down. Why not make a similar trade next June, when Mozgov would only have two more years of guaranteed money on the deal? (What if they kept the 28th pick in this year's draft and he turned into a promising sweetener? Who knows?)
Russell is still only 21 years old and too valuable to give up on this early, even with Ball coming through. But time isn't necessarily on the Lakers' side. There's a clear desire to trade for George now, get his Bird Rights, and not risk watching him get comfortable in a more competitive situation that can offer immediate championship contention through his prime.
The Lakers won't be the only team bidding for James' service in 2018, and so much can happen between now and then—like the Cleveland Cavaliers winning a second title. And even with George already onboard it's safe to say that group wouldn't be good enough to beat the Golden State Warriors. LeBron may not even be the best player in the world at that point, and neither Ball nor Brandon Ingram will be ready to serve as third wheels (particularly on the defensive end).
Cap space doesn't guarantee anything in today's league. What if Chris Paul signs with the San Antonio Spurs? A recent (surprising) report that Pau Gasol will opt out of his contract increases the odds of that happening. Wouldn't James take a hard look at teaming up with his good friend and Kawhi Leonard next year? If so, forking over Russell was a meaningful mistake.
But assuming George is on the roster by then, even putting themselves in position to land a fish as humongous as LeBron may be enough to re-establish the Lakers as one of the marquee franchises in all of professional sports. With James and George they'd obviously be good enough to establish an enviable culture for talented young pieces like Ball and Ingram to grow in. As the cap levels off and the playing field evens out, more free agents may eventually flock to Southern California so long as Magic and Pelinka keep long-term canker sores like the Mozgov and Luol Deng contracts off the books.
So much needs to happen before they reach those heights, but this trade makes it possible.
Meanwhile, 3000 miles away, the Nets were arguably the most hopeless organization in the league 12 hours ago. This trade brightens up their future and provides a clear path to getting back to the playoffs sooner than later. In the right situation, Russell can be that good.
Lopez was never going to contribute on the next competitive Nets team—the only logical reason for holding the injury-prone seven-footer out of last season's finale was to ensure he'd stay healthy as a trade chip heading into the last summer of his contract, and it worked. Even with Mozgov's contract, flipping an expiring Lopez for a player as young, talented, and intriguing as Russell is a magic trick by Nets general manager Sean Marks.
The former second overall pick hasn't experienced a smooth ride in Los Angeles, but he now finds himself in a more stable environment, surrounded by athletic wings and a head coach who specializes in player development.
The organization will be all in on Russell's growth. They'll find ways to accentuate his strengths, hide his weaknesses, and treat him like the genuine building block his prodigious skill-set suggests he can be. After this trade, the Nets will still have enough room to deliver Otto Porter or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope a max offer sheet in a couple weeks. (KCP would be an ideal long-term fit beside Russell.) They also are now in position to cash Jeremy Lin out for a more useful asset.
Both teams altered their course for the better with this trade. And if it allows LeBron to sign in L.A., or makes way for Russell to become a four-time All-Star, it will be viewed as one of the more significant transactions in recent NBA history.