With Paul George in Waiting, Lakers Strike a Deal to Open Door for His Arrival

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterJune 21, 2017

Apr 23, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (13) points during a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in game four of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Cleveland defeats Indiana 106-102. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES — What the bold new Los Angeles Lakers era of team president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka boils down to is this: They believe they can deliver new superstars that others before them could not.

It's now up to Johnson and Pelinka to lock in Paul George and have a superstar friend to put alongside him a year from now in free agency, ideally LeBron James or Russell Westbrook.

By trading D'Angelo Russell's potential and Timofey Mozgov's dreadful contract to the Brooklyn Nets for the No. 27 pick in the draft and Brook Lopez's expiring contract, as The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Tuesday, Johnson and Pelinka bet on their ability to turn cap space into championship talent. Former executive vice president of basketball operations Jim Buss and former general manager Mitch Kupchak assumed they could as well.

This is the new (but old) Plan A.

However, George's reported desire to end up in L.A. gives the Lakers a sure thing that Buss and Kupchak never had. George's proclamation to the Pacers front office, which ensured the Lakers won't be forced to trade much to get him, was one domino. Giving up on Russell just to unload Mozgov is another, as the Lakers can now fairly easily clear enough cap space to sign both George and another max player next summer.

While Johnson sets the ultimate course, Pelinka will detail Plans B, C, D, all the way to Z. Maybe the Lakers trade for George. Maybe the Nos. 27 and 28 overall picks they hold Thursday don't get moved and must turn into cheap long-term labor next to superstars. Maybe they sign DeMarcus Cousins.

There are tons of maybes, but there must be in rebuilds that always take luck, too.

EL SEGUNDO, CA - JUNE 15:  Magic Johnson, president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Lakers, and Rob Pelinka, General Manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, look on during the Markelle Fultz workout at Toyota Sports Center on June 15, 2017 in El S
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

A core problem sabotaging the previous regimeperhaps the biggest structural flawwas that Buss and Kupchak were never cut out to be builders. They were used to Lakers glory unfolding consistently and easily. Neither had the magnetism or verve to hustle and make something out of nothing.

Jerry Buss knew their limitations, but he hoped his son and longtime soldier Kupchak would avoid a rebuild with the addition of Dwight Howard for Kobe Bryant's final stretch. The plan was to set Jim up for an easy few years of glory and an early retirement.

With Howard now a bitter memory and Jim dismissed (along with Kupchak) by his sister Jeanie, the Lakers are back to where they were before in a sense: believing stars will flock to the bright lights of Tinseltown. 

This time, however, the team hopes to tap into the strengths of its new front office to deliver those stars.

For one, Pelinka knows agents. Don’t fail to notice the collateral result of this setting Russell up for a grand opportunity on another big stage to make his name with the Nets; Russell’s agent is Aaron Mintz, who also represents George. Russell is now Brooklyn’s one and only marquee young player—and gets a fresh start away from Nick Young’s ex-fiancee and Bryant’s shadow.

If the Lakers have to give up more of their young core to trade for George rather than signing him outright in 2018, he'll be eligible to get much more money in the long term, as L.A. would acquire his Bird rights. That's something no superstar would ignore, and it's exactly the rabbit-out-of-the-hat way Pelinka made his mark on the league as an agent before switching sides earlier this year.

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

Backroom dealings with agents weren't a strong suit of Kupchak, who adhered tightly to following rules and norms. That said, it's still incumbent on Pelinka to prove his various plans lead to a real-world, star-powered destination.

In the meantime, Johnson's belief in the next rookie point guard runs deep, which is why he told Lonzo Ball in their predraft meeting that he envisions him coming in to be a leader. Having that space to lead would have been nearly impossible had Lakers head coach Luke Walton not concluded that Russell wasn't going to develop into what the Lakers wanted, essentially making him a tradable asset.

Russell did improve with the faith Walton tried to put in him from the beginning of last season, but his personality is not one that wins people over. Bottom line.

When you are as aloof as Russell is and are trying to sell experienced leaders such as Johnson and Walton on your leadership ability, that's a dead end, no matter how good your pick-and-roll passing or shooting stroke might become.

True, this was definitely selling low on Russell, the 2015 No. 2 overall pick, as suggested earlier this week. Yet there was also a risk of Russell's value dropping even further after a year of Ball upstaging him in the Lakers offense and him continuing to be a ghost in the Lakers defense.

Adding Lopez to the mix may also accomplish what Kupchak had hoped when he signed Mozgov. Lopez is a talented player and great locker room personality (think Pau Gasol) who will help the young Lakers win games in the coming season, much as Mozgov and Luol Deng were supposed to do last year.

Adam Hunger/Associated Press

After unveiling a three-point shot last season, Lopez is now uniquely suited for Walton's spread-floor system, while he also promises to protect the rim. (He made 134 threes in 2016-17; Russell, by comparison, hit 135). Lopez, 29, is from North Hollywood and is a Southern California kid just like Ball and George. Part of the vision of Johnson and Pelinka is to maximize that local angle, so perhaps Lopez winds up staying for less money or does well enough to give the Lakers another asset.

But Lopez's arrival isn't the point. Rather, Mozgov's departure is the key in this deal, as it opens up the financial space for when someone worthy of superstar money comes.

In that sense, the sad final years of Jim Buss and Kupchak—and Bryant—could serve a useful purpose in Lakers history.

No one wanted to take the torch and pressure from arguably the greatest Laker ever, Bryant. It's far more appealing to be a savior and revive this immensely popular NBA franchise from its darkest days.

That's why Johnson didn't think he needed Jerry West, who did want back in with the Lakers before settling for a role in the Clippers' front office.

Johnson and Pelinka believe they can do this, which is why they're not being shy about trying.


Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.


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