The NBA trade deadline passed Thursday with one notably loud and wonderful grinding of gears.
The team that took the biggest step forward was the one that threw itself in reverse.
The big winners were the Lakers, because they set themselves up to be losers.
In his first days as the team’s basketball boss, in keeping with his vow that “it’s not gonna be an easy fix,” Magic Johnson delightfully threw up his hands, shrugged his shoulders and made them worse.
He traded his best player, Lou Williams. He didn’t acquire anybody gifted enough to replace him. He didn’t acquire anybody accomplished enough to make any sort of impact. He also didn’t give up any of the team’s young stars in the process.
The only thing Johnson added was an unknown piece of the future in Houston’s 2017 first-round draft pick, which completed the sketching of a marvelously smudged and crooked blueprint for the season’s final two months.
The Lakers are now perfectly set up to tank without tanking.
They can lose without being accused of giving up. They can lose while staying competitive until the end. They can lose with long faces and legitimacy.
They can reasonably lose enough to finish low enough in the standings to increase their odds of garnering a top-three pick in this summer’s loaded draft.
They desperately need that top-three pick. At this point, that is not only their endgame, but their only game.
If they lose a top-three spot in the lottery, they’ll not only surrender their first-round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers, but also surrender their 2019 first-round pick to the Orlando Magic. That would be two building blocks potentially crushed by victories in meaningless games against meaningless teams in a meaningless two months.
Right now they have the third-worst record in the NBA, and they need to keep it that way, if not drop even further, in order to truly move past the dark days of Jim Buss and start this new era of Magic with something brewin’.
Lonzo Ball, anyone?
This is a not a column saying they should tank. Few Lakers fans actually want them to purposely give up. Jeanie Buss hates the idea. Johnson glared at me this week when I broached the notion.
“I would never be about that, sending that message to our players,” Johnson said. “You know that.”
They’ve lost their leader in scoring and player-efficiency rating in Williams. They will thus spend the rest of the season relying on the disappointing D’Angelo Russell, the inconsistent Julius Randle and the still-looks-like-he’s-in-high-school Brandon Ingram. Fans will probably see more of Ivica Zubac, continue to see less of Timofey Mozgov, and generally spend the final games cheering for effort but not for scores.
When Johnson set it all up by trading Williams to the Rockets earlier this week, he explained it perfectly.
“This trade allows us to continue on the path of building something special, while maintaining future flexibility in the organization,’’ he said.
In other words, they can set up the future by struggling in the present without damaging their integrity.
This is why Johnson was never serious about trading two of the kids for Indiana’s Paul George. This may have been why Johnson was rushed into his role so hastily this week, just a couple of days before the deadline, because there were fears the Jim Buss regime would make that same sort of silly trade to help the Lakers this season while helping save its jobs.
Johnson is clearly looking at the future, saying earlier this week, “It’s going to take some years to get this thing turned around.”
That turnaround won’t start until this summer, so why damage the product further now? Johnson knew exactly what he was doing when he traded Williams, acquired no superstars and decided to roll the rest of the way with the kids.
For those who can’t stomach another awful spring, remember, this has happened before, and the outcome has been good. In each of the past three years, the Lakers have figured out a way to tank without tanking, and it’s worked well, and you eventually cheered for it, even if the draft picks haven’t always been worth cheering.
Last season, the Lakers lost 10 of their final 12 games, bounced into the second pick and nabbed Ingram.
In 2015, they also lost 10 of their last 12 games, bounced into the second pick and wound up with Russell.
In 2014, they lost nine of their last 12 games and took Julius Randle with the seventh overall pick.
Though certain players might have been occasionally oddly rested during those stretches, generally the Lakers lost those games honestly, which will happen in coming weeks, just like in past weeks. Seriously, Lakers fans, you’re already used to so many losses in recent years, what’s a few more?
Cheer for competitiveness. Cheer for growth. Cheer for close, but no cigar.
Believe me, you don’t want this cigar, it explodes.