The NBA summer of 2018 is finally here, and Lakers fans should be focused on one superstar.
He holds the future of the team in his giant hands. He could shake the balance of the league with his powerful first step.
The decisions made by this living legend will define part of his legacy and could make an impact on Los Angeles that would be felt forever.
He is exactly who everyone has been waiting for, but perhaps he’s not who you think.
The NBA summer of 2018 is not about LeBron James, it’s about Magic Johnson.
As the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, he holds the locker-room keys to the league’s most popular franchise and the purse strings to the league’s most attractive salary-cap situation.
For the rest of us, acquiring top players such as James or Paul George or Kawhi Leonard is a flight of fancy, a basketball dream.
For Johnson, it’s his job. It’s why he was hired. It was the only reason he was hired.
Jeanie Buss didn’t name, somewhat controversially, Johnson basketball boss 16 months ago because of his resume. He doesn’t sell tickets. He doesn’t work with players.
Johnson was hired strictly because, with his giant smile and Hollywood persona, he was the one Laker with enough gravitas to make them relevant again. Mitch Kupchak couldn’t do it. Jimmy Buss had no chance of doing it. Johnson was hired to succeed precisely where they failed.
He is the one Laker who could convince today’s stars that being a Laker still matters. He is the one Laker who wouldn’t have to endure the indignity of cancelled free-agent meetings or cheesy free-agent meetings. He wouldn’t need props. He wouldn’t need billboards. He would get these players in a room and he would go full Magic on them. He is the one Laker who could close the deal.
Since he dumped Lou Williams moments after his hiring in February of 2017, every move made by Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka has led to this summer’s closing of those deals.
They have the cap space. They have the money. They have the history. Now, they just need the players, and Johnson’s reputation as a serious basketball executive depends on his ability to acquire them.
He needs to get James. If not, then George. If not, then Leonard. If not, then he needs to figure out another way for this team to improve enough to break that franchise-record playoff drought of five consecutive seasons.
No excuses, no delays, and none of this we-can-keep-Julius-Randle-and-the-kids-will-mature-and-we’ll-try-again-next-summer stuff.
At some point, the Lakers and all their rebuilding talk insults the intelligence of the most loyal fans in this city. That point is now.
Johnson won’t be a failure if he doesn’t land James, but he will be a failure if he doesn’t land somebody, maybe two somebodies, or anybody to ensure that pro basketball’s biggest showpiece won’t again have to sit out basketball’s biggest show.
As for James, whose lugging of the Cleveland Cavaliers to his ninth NBA Finals this spring should lift his stature to that of the greatest player in basketball history, I heard recently about three Hollywood executives claiming that, without a doubt, he has already agreed to join the Lakers.
Later that same day, I heard about a former player who said that James’ wife, Savannah Brinson, doesn’t want to start over again in Los Angeles and, without a doubt, he will not join the Lakers.
That night, I heard about an agent who confirmed that, yes, James is coming to L.A.
Stop. Just stop. Can we all just stop trying to guess? If history is any indication, James will dramatically announce his decision like a thunderclap out of a clear summer sky, and even if the Lakers are the Las Vegas favorites to land him, that means nothing.
Some Lakers fans actually think the team doesn’t need a 33-year-old James stifling the team’s brilliant young talent. To those fans I respectfully ask, are you out of your minds? Which young talent are you talking about? The guys who won 35 games last year?
This is Hollywood. LeBron James belongs here. And if that somehow stunts the development of the great Lonzo Ball, so be it.
There are other Lakers fans who worry the opposite, fretting that the Lakers’ talent isn’t good enough for James. He wants to keep chasing championships, and he can’t do that in the loaded Western Conference with the current group of Lakers kids, at least not as long as Golden State is still alive.
That’s a reasonable concern, and one that became more serious Tuesday when Ball released a rap song disrespecting teammate and close friend Kyle Kuzma. It was surely made in good fun, and continued a pattern of insults they regularly fire at each other on social media.
But still, with its misogynistic title of “Kylie Kuzma’’ and its rips of Kuzma’s shooting (Look in the mirror, Lonzo) and even his parentage, it comes across as childish and may give James the impression that the Lakers locker room is inhabited by children. That’s not a good look for a guy who wants to win with veterans.
James will not come here unless he can bring another star with him, yet another challenge for Johnson.
George has wanted to play for the Lakers seemingly since he grew up in Palmdale. That appears to be Johnson’s signing to lose. There is talk that James might instead want to bring Chris Paul, which is more problematic for Johnson considering Paul’s injury history. Yes, he was a Lakers dream date for about five minutes, but that was more than six years ago, and he’s not the same player.
There are other ways to get better. A trade for Leonard could be one of them. Heck, basically any player who suddenly becomes available this summer can be acquired by the Lakers. It can be anybody. The chase has just begun.
But Johnson has to do the courting. Johnson has to close the deal. Johnson has to do the work.
Can he? Will he? For the Lakers, the NBA summer of 2018 rests on that last question.