Column: Trade lets Lakers dream about a LeBron James-led superteam
The move cleared more than $22 million in salary cap space for the summer of 2018. (June 21, 2017)
And you think Cody Bellinger takes a big swing.
Against all odds, the most compelling home run in Los Angeles this week has been hit not by the extraordinary kid at Chavez Ravine, but by an aging slugger in El Segundo.
With one giant hack Tuesday, Magic Johnson knocked the Lakers free of a bad contract and a lousy attitude while sending a memorable master plan soaring.
If Johnson has his way, by next summer the Lakers could be transformed from consistent super duds into something resembling basketball’s next super team.
Most of their young core will be going, going, gone … and could be replaced by some combination of LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Paul George.
Sounds crazy? Well, before Tuesday, their chances of dumping Timofey Mozgov’s cap-swallowing salary sounded crazy. And their willingness to rid themselves of prize former No. 2 overall draft pick D’Angelo Russell sounded crazy.
But both things happened in a trade with the Brooklyn Nets that began the process of cleaning out their financial closet to make salary cap room for the kind of players who could create a championship.
Stunning a basketball world that usually anticipates these things, the Lakers dealt Mozgov and Russell to the Nets for center Brook Lopez and the 27th pick in this year’s draft.
You don’t know Lopez? You don’t like Lopez? Don’t worry about Lopez. The fine center wasn’t acquired for his career averages of 19 points and seven rebounds. He was acquired because his $22-million contract expires after next season, giving the Lakers some desperately needed salary cap space.
The price of making these two drain-clearing moves? It was Russell, who, in his brief two-year career here, had been both very good and very, very bad.
Some thought he was improving, with a 16-point, five-assist season that was one of the best second years in Lakers history. But others thought he wasn’t improving fast enough, and had not yet emerged from the immaturity that led him to infamously leak a video of teammate Nick Young talking about cheating on then-girlfriend Iggy Azalea.
No ambiguity in this space. The kid needed to be traded. He wasn’t going to survive in this town. His work ethic was questionable. His attitude was condescending. He just didn’t fit, and who knows what problems he would have caused when he had to share the guard spotlight with probable No. 2 overall pick Lonzo Ball?
Russell is only 21, so he has plenty of time to reach his potential in Brooklyn. But it wasn’t happening for him here. This was Johnson making a statement about the kind of players he wants on his team — gritty, high basketball IQ, unselfish — and Russell no longer belonged.
So the Lakers added by subtraction Tuesday, setting the stage for the ability to sign two maximum-salary players in 2018, with the favorites already being James and George.
George could, and should, join them sooner. They should trade for him now, before the Indiana star becomes a free agent after next season. George has said he wants to be a Laker, and do they really want him to go to contending Cleveland or Boston as a one-year rental, fall in love with the team, and not want to leave?
This is why they acquired that 27th overall draft pick from Brooklyn. They also have the 28th pick, and now they can trade those picks, plus Jordan Clarkson and/or Julius Randle, to Indiana for George.
The Pacers should do it before they lose George for nothing. The Lakers should do it to further ease their cap issues, as Clarkson will make about $12 million a season for the next three seasons.
If that deal is done, the Lakers could still possibly make the playoffs this season — a trio of George, Ball and Brandon Ingram is interesting — but the real story will occur in the summer of 2018.
With George on the team, the Lakers become an attractive destination again. With all this salary cap space cleared, here comes James or Westbrook.
James has hinted that he wants to end his career in Hollywood. Westbrook would have a hard time turning down a chance to come home.
Can you imagine this starting lineup? James or Westbrook, George, Ingram, Ball and the young Ivica Zubac at center?
A team like that could compete with the Golden State Warriors. A team like that would make the Lakers relevant again and turn Magic Johnson into the prince of this city again.
In the meantime, give Johnson credit for getting the ball rolling with a move that could not only have huge long-term impact, but also had the most amazing immediate ramification.
Nick Young is still a Laker. D’Angelo Russell is not. Somebody get that on tape.
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