All Ball Sports: It’s moving day for the Lakers

LeBron James. Photo by Ray Vidal

by Paul Teetor                                    

It’s long past time for the Lakers to try something radically different and do something really smart: face reality and trade LeBron James while they can still get significant assets for him.

Wait, what?   

Trade LeBron?

The Lakers don’t trade away superstars – they trade for them.

That’s their history and the key to their long-term success.

All true. 

But the league has changed a lot since the Lakers shoplifted an under-contract Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from the Milwaukee Bucks in 1976, and seduced unrestricted free agent Shaquille O’Neal into ditching Orlando at the altar in 1996.

There are no more chaotic, clueless teams for the Lakers to fleece left in the NBA. They all have general managers with MBAs from Harvard and analytics guys who tell them who is overvalued, who is undervalued, and who should or should not be traded under any circumstances.

More importantly, the Lakers are going absolutely nowhere except straight to the bottom of the standings for the next 5-10 years unless they do something drastic.

Drastic times call for drastic measures.

And these are most assuredly desperate times for the Lakers – even if their “management team” of Jeannie Buss, Linda Rambis, Kurt Rambis, and Rob Pelinka, keeps putting out happy talk about winning it all next year, patent nonsense that is starting to sound like crazy talk.

The brutal truth is that even with LeBron, and his sidekick Anthony Davis at full health – unlikely but possible — the Lakers will be fortunate to even make the playoffs next season. 

Win the title? Are they kidding? Whatever they’re smoking, please pass it around.

All you have to do is look at the Western Conference competition with an objective eye to see how hopeless the situation really is. 

The Golden State Warriors are once again complete with Splash Brother Klay Thompson back after a two-year absence due to injuries. Steph Curry and Draymond Green are as good as ever, and while Thompson was out, the Warriors developed a new shooting star in Jordan Poole, who already looks better than Thompson. They have more firepower than any team in the league. There’s no way the Lakers are beating them.

The Memphis Grizzlies are led by the league’s newest superstar in Rocket Man Ja Morant and he has a deep, young and talented supporting cast in Jaren Jackson, Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke and De’Anthony Melton. No way the brittle, aging Lakers are beating them.

The Phoenix Suns posted the best record in the NBA this year, led by 37-year-old point god Chris Paul, who seems to have found the fountain of youth bubbling away in the Arizona desert. He is backed up by a second superstar in shooting guard Devin Booker, with dominant big man DeAndre Ayton and lockdown defender Mickael Bridges backing them up. There is no way the Lakers are beating them.

The Dallas Mavericks have a supernova in 23-year-old Luka Doncic, who is so dominant with the ball in his hands that he brings back memories of a young LeBron. And owner Mark Cuban has dug deep into his deep pockets to surround Doncic with dead-eye 3-point shooters in Dorian Finney-Smith, Davis Bertans, Maxi Kleber and emerging point guard Jalen Brunson. There’s no way the Lakers are beating them.

That takes care of the first four playoff spots. The next couple of spots are likely to be claimed by the New Orleans Pelicans with ex-Laker Brandon Ingram, prolific scorer C.J McCollum and superstar-in-waiting Zion Williamson; and  by the Clippers, assuming Kawhi Leonard and Paul George come back at full health. There’s no way the Lakers are beating either of those teams.

That leaves the Lakers scrambling for one of the last two playoff spots with the Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves and San Antonio Spurs.

The Jazz have an All-star in center Rudy Gobert and a superstar in shooting guard Donovan Mitchell. But they hate each other – and therefore hate playing with each other – so there is some hope they might be broken up and the team could regress.

There’s even speculation that Jazz Coach Quin Snyder might leave and take the Lakers coaching vacancy. He’s a very good coach, so if both those things happen there is at least a chance the Lakers could finish ahead of the Jazz.

The Nuggets have 6-foot-11 center Nikola Jokic, who won the NBA MVP award last season and just won it again in news that broke Monday morning. Their second and third best players, uber-athletic guard Jamal Murray and sharp-shooting forward Michael Porter, both missed this season with serious injuries but are both on track to come back at full health next season. If they do, there’s no way the Lakers are beating them.

The Timberwolves are equally loaded with young talent in emerging superstar Anthony Edwards, All-Star center Karl Anthony Towns, and a deep bench with former Laker D’Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt and former Clipper Patrick Beverly. The Lakers might be able to beat them but probably not.

That leaves the Spurs as the one contending team the Lakers could likely beat, but even that is not a sure thing. 

So, the short-term future for the Lakers is bleak.

The long-term prognosis?

It’s even worse.

It’s easy for Lakers fans to forget the fallow years from 1991, when Magic Johnson retired, until 1996, when Shaq and Kobe showed up to lead a Lakers renaissance that took another four years to produce a title in 2000 – and two more in 2001 and 2002.

Half of today’s Lakers fans were either not born, or too young to be paying attention to the Lakers back then. Bart “Eat my Shorts” Simpson and Sponge Bob Square Pants left a bigger impression on them than Lakers immortals like Nick “Cancun” Van Exel, Sedale Threatt and Elden Campbell.

But it shouldn’t be so easy for Lakers fans to forget the futile, frustrating years from 2012 to 2019 when the Lakers made the playoffs just once and got swept in the first round – then spent the off-season begging Dwight Howard to stay in LA.

Dwight Howard! One of the biggest NBA slackers ever. A guy so talented – and so lazy and disinterested and selfish — that Kobe basically ran him out of town.

His hasty exit after just one year in a purple and gold uniform as well as the injury-induced retirement of Steve Nash – who never really got rolling as a Laker – set the stage for the next catastrophic chapter in Lakers history. 

Any Lakers fan out there can tell you how painful it was to watch the final four years of the late, great Kobe Bryant — God rest his showman’s soul – doing a slow fade into retirement at the tail-end of his 20-year playing career.

With the single exception of his unforgettable 60-point explosion in his very last game, the most memorable image of Kobe’s last four years was him shuffling to the foul line to can two free throws after tearing his Achilles tendon – and then limping off to the locker room.

His brave comeback a year later from that most dreaded of all basketball injuries helped cement his legacy as one of the toughest players ever to lace up a pair of sneakers — but it did nothing for the team, which finished out of the playoffs every year.

In return they got a series of high draft picks that turned into Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle. Add in talented rookies Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart, and the Lakers were finally poised to enter a new era stocked with fresh legs and young, blossoming talent.

But then LeBron, eager to fulfill his Hollywood ambitions with a hands-on approach that mandated living here, let it be known he was open to signing with the Lakers.

That changed everything for a franchise and a fan base that has long believed everyone in the NBA, NFL and MLB – hell, make that everyone everywhere — wants to live and play in LA.

LeBron is coming! Happy Days are here again!

The plan: LeBron will mentor the kids and carry them to a championship.

The reality: the kids weren’t quite ready, LeBron suffered the first major injury of his career, and they missed the playoffs yet again. 

By then LeBron had exerted his alpha-dog status within the organization. He soon made it clear he wanted the team to do whatever it took to get Anthony Davis from New Orleans with a year still to go on his contract.

The “management team” did as he told them. But not only did they ship out all the young talent that had accumulated with all those painful losses over all those years of failure, they also handed over so many future draft picks that it was an offer New Orleans couldn’t refuse.

And for a year, it all worked to perfection: the Lakers, led by LeBron and AD, won an NBA title and all was right in Lakers Nation once again.

Trouble was, it took place in the Florida bubble, everyone else was consumed with the Covid-19 pandemic, the Lakers didn’t even get a parade down Figueroa Street, and the championship quickly became a footnote to the larger pandemic-that-ate-the-sports-world narrative of 2020-21.

Then came the 2021 season, when both LeBron and AD got hurt, the Lakers were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, and the Clippers rubbed it in by reaching the Western Conference Finals while the Lakers had to watch from home.

So the new master plan was simple: bring in a third superstar in Russell Westbrook and the Lakers would return to glory. Problem was that Westbrick had no game left, but still had plenty of bad attitude. Then LeBron and AD got hurt yet again, and they missed the playoffs entirely.

Last month Coach Frank Vogel was made the scapegoat, with the management team leaking to its media minions that his failure to get the best out of Westbrook was the reason he was fired. As if Vogel had a magic wand that could turn back the clock to 2015.

Now, while the Lakers try to find a way to ditch Westbrick and the $47 million they owe him next season, and search for a credible coach willing to take on this mess, the next crucial date is August 4. That’s when LeBron is eligible to sign a massive extension that would keep him in LA for the rest of his career.

And if the “management team” wants to foist a replay of the four-year Kobe farewell tour on the fans, then that’s the right move.

But if they don’t, then they have no play other than to trade LeBron for draft picks and/or young, promising players to start the inevitable rebuild. Remember, he’s under contact for one more year and does not have a no-trade clause. So they can do it even if he resists the idea.

The nightmare scenario if they don’t act now: he plays out his contract, leaves next summer for a team where he can win another championship, and the Lakers get nothing back for him.

The even bigger nightmare scenario: he loves living here, decides to play out his last years here, the team’s record gets worse and worse, and all the resulting high draft picks go to the Pelicans.

When LeBron finally retires, the franchise could look like downtown Mariupol after the Russian bombing, the so-called management team will be long gone with the exception of Jeannie Buss, and die-hard dedicated Lakers fans will be left holding the bag. 

The Lakers only viable option: work with LeBron to find a place he’s willing to go and make it happen for the good of the team.

As dismaying as the idea of trading LeBron is, think of it this way: if you’re driving north on the 405 and your news feed alerts you to a 20-car pile-up a mile ahead, what should you do?

It’s obvious: head for the surface streets and take your chances.

It’s a better idea than driving straight into the flaming wreck dead ahead.                               

Contact: Follow: @paulteetor. ER



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