On July 1st, 2018, the NBA landscape officially began its annual overhaul known as free agency. This is the time of year when the 2019 season really starts to crystallize, Vegas makes a little more money and we, the fans, begin to fantasize. This is the time of year when teams arm themselves with the weapons that will hopefully bring them a title this year. It is certainly a time when the overall appearance of a team can change with the simple addition or subtraction of one player. But in Southern California, this summer had a completely different reason for its large meaning.
The Los Angeles Lakers are one of the most successful franchises in NBA history. Legends have passed through the cities gates, championships hoisted in their arena, and records cemented into everlasting glory. This is a franchise that prides itself on winning, attitude and the swagger of their hometown. However, since 2013, the LA Lakers have been anything but. These past five years were haunted by failed picks, useless free agent pickups and a bad front office. The weight of these years caused Lakers owner Jeanie Buss to fire her brother Jim as President of Basketball Operations and to replace him with a figure who would bring hope to a city desperate for a return to a winning culture, and to quench their thirst for a championship. Buss hired legendary Laker Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Johnson promised the city that he would not fail and immediately set his sights on the summer of 2018, a summer which would include an abundance of quality star players and most importantly, the greatest player on the planet, LeBron James. While Johnson mainly had his sights on James, this came along with the hope that the fact that if LeBron James might come to LA, would attract other stars to come play for the purple and gold. Johnson immediately began preparations, albeit a year and half in advance, in hopes of luring the King. However, things have not gone as planned. The stars of summer 2018 did not go to LA. Players like Paul George and Russell Westbrook, both once considered foregone conclusions to become Lakers, decided to stay in Oklahoma City. Key role players, like 3-Point marksman JJ Redick, chose to sign elsewhere, avoiding the glamour of Southern California, not to mention the pressure that comes with playing alongside LeBron James.
While a lot of this can be squared on the shoulders of LeBron James and the entourage that he brings with him, the fact remains that it is the job of the General Manager to attract players to come to his team and sell them on the values of his franchise. Magic Johnson, in only a year as GM, has been unable to do this. Not only has he been unable to attract marquee free agents to LA, but has also made a series of bad and reckless moves which have resulted in LA losing good role players. D’Angelo Russell, a former Laker number 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft, was traded by Johnson to Brooklyn and has become an All Star point guard on the east coast. Brook Lopez, who incidentally was received in the trade for Russell, was let go by the Lakers after just one year. He has since gone to Milwaukee, only to become their starting center and a surprising 3-Point specialist for the Bucks, who are currently at the top of the Eastern Conference.
The Lakers however, wasted their 2018 cap money on older, journeymen players. Both JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley had been on 3 teams in 2 years before joining the Lakers. The Lakers have spiraled out of control since late December and have fallen out of the Western Conference playoff race. Johnson is running out of time. LeBron James isn’t getting younger and it’s starting to show. This summer, with marquee free agents and budding stars on the market, may be Johnsons last chance to help contribute to a title for Los Angeles. Earvin Johnson is a legendary player. But, like many others before him, if he fails to come through this summer, it may leave a stain on his record that might never get cleansed.