The Los Angeles Lakers have failed to make the playoffs in four straight years, a number that equals the legendary franchise's missed postseasons in the previous five-and-a-half decades.
No, the last few years haven't been your father's Lake Show, and that's one of the reasons Magic Johnson was enlisted to restore the sheen to the purple and gold brand.
Johnson and new general manager Rob Pelinka have an enviable slate to work with: A collection of young, blue-chip talent, the second pick in June's draft, and the shiny history of the NBA's flagship franchise in its most attractive market. Yet theory and practice are two different things, and the Lakers have some challenges to deal with.
Johnson said in February that the Lakers are "a superstar away" from competing with the Warriors and Spurs in the Western Conference. The first instinct is to react to that proclamation as if it were one of Johnson's simplistic tweets, but the bigger question is the timing.
It's been widely reported that Paul George has designs on coming home to L.A. when he's an unrestricted free agent a year from now. That gained further traction Thursday when the Indiana Pacers forward was omitted from All-NBA consideration, thus denying him the option of a supermax contract extension.
The Lakers are equally confident they will sign George, according to The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski, who added that the team sees no reason to give the Pacers assets in a trade when they can wait out George in free agency.
If that's the path the Lakers choose to pursue, then another playoff-free season likely awaits in 2017-18. Adding a draft pick such as Lonzo Ball to an already young core should ensure that, regardless of the entertainment value the team could provide. While some rumors have suggested Blake Griffin may want to cross the Staples Center hallway as a free agent this summer, salary cap challenges likely pour cold water on that.
In retrospect, former GM Mitch Kupchak's signings last summer of Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov grow more and more ludicrous by the day. Both are now over 30 with three full seasons left on their contracts, and neither brings much to the current roster.
|Luol Deng||3 years/$54M|
|Timofey Mozgov||3 years/$47.9M|
|Jordan Clarkson||3 years/$37.4M|
|Nick Young||Player option next season/$5.7M|
|Julius Randle||Entry-level/QO 2018|
|D'Angelo Russell||Entry-level/QO 2019|
|Brandon Ingram||Entry-level/QO 2020|
|Larry Nance Jr.||Entry-level/Team option 2018|
|Ivica Zubac||Entry-level/QO 2019|
As you can see, the Deng/Mozgov deals drape across the chart like the sore thumbs of an albatross. In this construct, the Lakers would have $20 million to $24 million in cap space this summer depending on what Young does. That indicates this probably won't be a summer for a big-time free-agent splash - especially if their eyes are focused on George.
The fact is, the Lakers are smart to remain in asset-collection mode for the moment. Most expect them to select Ball, assuming he's available at No. 2, but it's worth noting that the team also has the No. 28 pick from the Houston Rockets. That matters too - next season, the Lakers' pick conveys to the Philadelphia 76ers, unprotected.
The current youthful assets the Lakers have aren't without question marks, either. Brandon Ingram came on late as a rookie this season, but still desperately needs to add strength to his 6-foot-9, 200-pound frame. Julius Randle and D'Angelo Russell remain tantalizing yet inconsistent prospects.
In terms of trade possibilities, the Lakers figure to be active between now and next February's deadline. Drafting Ball would, on paper, make one of Russell or Jordan Clarkson expendable in the long term. Given that the NBA is also a league where an Andrea Bargnani deal fetched three players and two draft picks, it's not incomprehensible that Deng or Mozgov could be traded. Stretching one of those contracts remains a possibility as well.
There are no quick fixes, even if owner Jeanie Buss wants to see a Lakers representative when they host the All-Star Game next season. Rome wasn't built in a day, and that includes the NBA franchise that once evoked the decadence of ancient Rome.