With DeMarcus Cousins’ torn Achilles, the increased likelihood of Paul George staying in OKC, and LeBron’s reluctance to join the Lakers without another established star in the rotation, it was no surprise to hear reports that the Lakers were changing their focus to next year's free agency period.
However, their trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers hours before last week's deadline, which saw them bring in Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye, could mean that they’re not ready to throw in the towel just yet. Regardless, the Lakers have left themselves various avenues to improve the squad, which could prove substantial when many teams are correcting the splurge in contracts players enjoyed over the previous couple of seasons.
The Cavaliers may have acquired young, fresh talent in Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr, but in Thomas and Frye, the Lakers were able to substitute Clarkson’s two-and-a-half-year deal for more expiring contracts, making them fully capable of signing two max players either this summer or the next. This doesn’t necessarily go against their desire to hold out for 2019, but the flexibility it provides them is crucial. Whether the Lakers sign both stars in the same free agency, or one in each, Magic Johnson and co. have given themselves options as they seek to return to the postseason.
Persuading LeBron to come to the west coast with no other stars may be tough, but don’t count out George’s arrival just yet. No matter how much chemistry he has gained with Russell Westbrook in recent weeks, the lure of a hometown team is tough to reject, especially at a franchise with the esteem of the Purple and Gold.
The Lakers' young core is blossoming into one of the hottest teams in the league, going 10-5 in their last 15 encounters, and that’s with Lonzo Ball sidelined with a knee injury. Plus, the fans clearly want him, so much so that some even started a chant for him when OKC travelled to Staples on Thursday.
A strong free agency ahead
Even if the Lakers don’t grab a big name in the offseason, there will be plenty of names for them to go after in 2019, including the likes of Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard and Hassan Whiteside. Leonard has been having his own personal issues with the Spurs regarding his rehabilitation from injury, as Spurs doctors could not diagnose him correctly, yet he remains incapable of playing.
As for Thompson, perhaps a big payday and an increased role will be on the cards after he wins another championship or two with the Warriors, not to mention that his dad, Mychal, was a member of the Lakers dynasty of the 1980s. You can’t argue with sentiment, a max deal, and a chance to move away from being third or fourth fiddle.
Aiming for 2019 may also help the Lakers as the young core would get another season under their belt to grow as individual players and as a unit. Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram each received selections to the Rising Star game for Team USA, and it's becoming clearer that each of these three could become stars. Another standout year for the trio will have stars begging to come the Lakers, and the front office duo of Johnson and Rob Pelinka have shown they have no problems getting deals done.
The future of Julius Randle is still up in the air, and even though he’s been a standout for the Lakers lately, averaging 20.4 points and 8.0 rebounds in his last five appearances, the early promise of Kuzma threatens his future in LA. He’s been doing everything he can to earn a new contract from the Lakers this summer, but his strong play might be another trump card the Lakers could play on the trade table. Now stocked with a first-round pick from the recent Cavaliers trade, perhaps a package of Randle and a pick could allow them to grab more assets, or even a higher pick in the upcoming draft, which promises to be a deep class.
In the meantime, Lakers fans will have to sit tight to see how their front office plays things from here. With so many possibilities, they can only hope that they are able to get it right. But from the newfound excitement surrounding the team as of late, as they begin a push back to relevancy, it would be hard to see Johnson and Pelinka mess this up, whichever route they take.
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