The Slatest

A Plan for Making Sure the Lakers Don’t Waste LeBron Again That Even the Lakers Couldn’t Screw Up

LeBron is seen from a distance, facing the camera, as Rondo walks toward him.
LeBron James and Rajon Rondo during a Lakers game on March 4, 2019 in Los Angeles. Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Magic Johnson resigned his job running the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night because, more or less, he thought it was too much of a hassle. The Wall Street Journal has since summed up why Magic’s time with the team, which failed to make the playoffs or even achieve a winning record this season despite having LeBron James on it, was such a disaster:

All the Lakers had to do was construct a team around him that followed the wisdom of the NBA’s crowd. They went contrarian instead. After the series of puzzling moves that overshadowed their signing of LeBron James, Johnson went on national television to defend himself.

“Everybody’s talking about ‘the Lakers don’t have shooting,’” he said in July. “Oh, we got shooting.”

They did not. The Lakers finished the season with a 3-point shooting percentage that ranked 29th of the league’s 30 teams.

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The Journal gets at what the worst part of this season was for Lakers fans, and really all NBA fans: Not that the Lakers struggled but that they did so in a fashion that was totally predictable even to total boneheads such as myself, surrounding James with declining players that no other team wanted, most egregiously two guards (Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson) who can’t shoot. It was an entirely avoidable fiasco that took place while teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers—which are located in cities that are not warm-weather capitals of celebrity and luxury lifestyle—recruited useful free agent role players with whom they subsequently won many more games than the team in L.A. did. And it deprived society of the chance to see LeBron James, who despite being old by sports standards (34) is still very good, in the playoffs in Los Angeles, which, regardless of whether you root for the Lakers, would have been a compelling event. In this way Magic didn’t just let his team down, he let America down.

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The good news: Whereas most teams need to balance the urge to “win now” against the need to plan for the future, James is 1) already signed with the Lakers for at least two more years and 2) a far better player, when he’s at his best, than anyone else the Lakers could add. The team has a much, much better chance of winning a championship in the next two or three years—while James is still in his late prime—than it will after he leaves or retires. James’ unique current combination of age and immense skill has blessed the team with the rare freedom not to worry, like every other team in every sport has to these days, about playing extra-dimensional prospect-and-asset management chess, and to instead to just get the guys who are obviously good at basketball at this exact moment.

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And they are actually set up just fine to do that. The Lakers currently have room under the salary cap to add another star alongside James, and there are a number of stars who will be available this summer as free agents. They also still have a smattering of low-salaried young players filling out their roster who, though they have some flaws, are talented and improving. Really, all the Lakers need to do is sign the first guy on this list of overall top free agents who’s willing to play for them, then sign as many of the free agents on this list of leading three-point shooters as they can before their money runs out.

Of course, the team basically had the same freedom and obvious needs last off-season too, and messed it up thanks to familial and organizational dysfunction and Magic’s too-clever “flexibility” plan. A nation—nay, a world—of basketball fans can only now hope that dumb lightning doesn’t strike twice.

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