Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka in their first offseason in charge of an NBA franchise, but the two neophytes are making this look easy. Johnson, Pelinka and their Los Angeles Lakers have passed every test set before them since taking command of the franchise. They’ve set the Purple and Gold up for long-term success in a short period of time.
The Lakers got extremely lucky to keep their lottery pick in the 2017 NBA Draft and were even luckier to land the second overall selection. But they did work to obtain extra picks in what was a historically deep draft, and were also patient during the crazy free agent and trade frenzy that hit the league.
Just after Johnson took over, the Lakers shipped Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets in exchange for what would become the 28th pick in the draft. Before draft night, they then packaged D'Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov’s awful contract and shipped them to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Brook Lopez and the 27th pick. During the draft they sent the 28th pick to the Utah Jazz in exchange for the 30th and 42nd selections.
All of that movement allowed them to come away with an outstanding haul. They selected Lonzo Ball with the second pick, Kyle Kuzma at 27, Josh Hart at 30 and Thomas Bryant at 42. All four players have looked excellent in Summer League.
We know all what Ball is doing, as he’s been a triple-double threat every night and turned in the best performance of the summer on Wednesday night. Some questioned the Lakers’ selection of Kuzma, but he’s been a revelation and has shown serious growth over how he played at Utah. The Flint, Michigan native has averaged 18.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.5 blocks per game. He’s also hitting from beyond the arc, something that was the biggest concern about his ability to adapt to the NBA.
Meanwhile, Hart (who is out with a sprained ankle) and Bryant have shown flashes at both ends of the floor and already look like they could be useful reserves. Both guys are likely ticketed for time in the G-League this year, but certainly appear to have futures with the franchise.
The draft was huge for Los Angeles, but the signing of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was equally as important. The 24-year-old two-way shooting guard unexpectedly became an unrestricted free agent late in the process, and the Lakers were able to convince him to take a one-year, $18 million deal. Caldwell-Pope has the chance to play his way into the team’s future this year and should be an outstanding complement to Ball in the backcourt. His defensive intensity and ability to hit from deep will help his new team immensely.
While all of those additions were huge for the Lakers, the most important moves of the offseason were the ones they didn’t make. Pelinka and Johnson jealously guarded their young assets, refusing to part with players or draft picks to secure established veterans. They didn’t throw an overwhelming package at the Indiana Pacers for Paul George, or spend any of next year’s $50-plus million in cap space on modest upgrades. Instead, they stuck to the rebuilding plan. Given how dominant the Golden State Warriors are, that was the right move.
Perhaps most important of all, they immediately expressed belief in Brandon Ingram and got him to work hard on improving his game and his body once his rookie season ended. The results were on display during his first (and only) Summer League game, as he went for 26 points and looked fantastic doing it. Ingram didn’t just look like a piece of the puzzle that night, he looked like its focal point. Ingram and Ball could take the Lakers to the next level as they continue to mature.
The Lakers have so many young, talented players it would have been foolish to break things up with a trade. Ingram (19), Ball (19), Julius Randle (22), Larry Nance Jr. (24), Jordan Clarkson (25), Kuzma (21), Hart (22), Ivica Zubac (20) and Bryant (19) form an absurdly young core. Caldwell-Pope (24) just added to the youth movement.
Johnson and Pelinka may not have a contender on their hands next season, but they’ve done an incredible job securing the team’s future. Now it’s up to those young guys and head coach Luke Walton to start improving. If they do their jobs half as well as the team’s top two executives have, the Lakers will be back in the playoff picture in no time.