This just in: Not only are the Lakers the NBA’s most tampering-prone team, they still actually do stuff!
As in days of yore, they became headliners this week, pulling off the trade deadline blockbuster that stunned everyone.
Not that it was any surprise locally, where even grade-school kids knew Magic Johnson wanted to move young players to create two maximum contract salary cap slots.
Nor was there any mystery as to who the Lakers want — LeBron James and Paul George, with DeMarcus Cousins as a backup option. Anyone who didn’t know that would have been sent to Remedial Lakers History.
The “block” in “blockbuster” came from the smallest, most famous player in the deal, the 5-foot-9 Isaiah Thomas (actually 5-8¾ without shoes at the 2011 draft camp), who succeeds Kobe Bryant as the franchise player. Also, as the shortest ever to suit up for them.
(Slater Martin, a Minneapolis Laker, was listed at 5-10, Johnny Egan at 5-11 … with others like Ty Lue hilariously listed as taller.)
At least Isaiah can be their franchise player for the rest of this season. Despite Magic’s excitement (“We want to get him in here fast … to come in there and lead our troops”), they’ll drop him like a hot rock if that’s what it takes to land two full-sized superstars.
Despite the conjecture industry around LeBron and George, neither is saying anything about leaving.
LeBron never says anything, although his people drop the occasional hint, which is why everyone knows he might leave, is upset at Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and open to joining the Lakers if they land another star.
Meanwhile in OKC, George was so moved by Russell Westbrook’s support of his initial All-Star “snub” — as if he had a better case than Chris Paul or Lou Williams — he said his decision “is becoming even easier to make.”
Worse for the Lakers, if Plan A was fading with George happy, Cousins blowing out his Achilles and LeBron not interested in coming alone, there was no Plan B.
With other teams spurning their trade offers, they began considering saving their cap room for the more modest 2019 free-agent class (Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler).
A funny thing happened on the way to 2019.
It began in Cleveland, with everyone aware LeBron might leave making their own plans — starting with Kyrie Irving, who asked to be traded last summer and was accommodated in the deal for Thomas, who was coming off hip surgery.
The Cavs sank to No. 3 in the East and No. 29 in defensive rating. Lue, their coach, noted they were not only the NBA’s oldest team but one of the slowest. James was back to questioning meddlesome owner Dan Gilbert’s commitment to pursuing a title.
It was Gilbert, of course, who blasted “the self-styled King” for his “cowardly betrayal” in 2011 when James left, and whom LeBron had to forgive to come home in 2015.
After weeks of dismal news, Gilbert suddenly decided to go all-in on keeping LeBron, ordering his people to fix their defense, as if a selection of available perimeter players — we’re talking Jordan Clarkson, not Marcus Smart — would do the trick.
Out went Thomas, one of the problems — if hardly the linchpin, since the Cavs were awful for two months without him — with Dwyane Wade (also likely considered a defensive liability), Derrick Rose (ditto), Channing Frye (ditto), Jae Crowder and Iman Shumpert also departing. In came Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., George Hill and Rodney Hood.
Of course, no Klutch Sports guys went. That’s the agency run by LeBron’s pal, Rich Paul, who got Tristan Thompson $82 million for five years and J.R. Smith $57 million for four.
Keeping the players at hand could cost a gargantuan $250 million in payroll and luxury tax. Barring a title run, Gilbert will likely let LeBron go without the recriminations this time.
After years of wild spending, only a few teams have much cap room — and none as much as the Lakers. With the protected first-round pick they got from the Cavs (Cleveland’s own pick, not Brooklyn’s), they might even get someone to take the remaining $36 million on Luol Deng’s contract, creating two max slots with $12 million left over.
With necessary discounts from James’ $35 million and George’s $30 million, Thomas, on an expiring deal, could have a place here, not as a ball-dominating point guard but an explosive sixth man who could be a huge plus in today’s fast-paced, firepower-oriented, floor-spacing game.
The best part for the Lakers is that Isaiah could work, helping them recruit more stars, whether they land two, or one, or none. For the first time in a long time, their strategy isn’t hit-or-miss but flexible.
Thomas’ struggles returning from surgery dimmed the memory of his years leading the Celtics back into prominence, making him an icon among icons in their market.
GM Danny Ainge broke local hearts with his cold-blooded trade — suggesting how hard he thought it was to pursue a title while protecting a Smurf on defense.
Coming off the bench would make Isaiah’s size easier to work around. It’s not something he would have embraced in Boston or Cleveland but he might here, knowing he has to find somewhere he fits in.
For an objective assessment, ESPN’s resident LeBron expert, Brian Windhorst, a former Cavs beat writer who attended LeBron’s high school, called Thursday’s moves “an absolute home run deal” for the Lakers.
Something else is happening: a warmup in the press as the Lakers climb in the standings after years of seeing their reputation trampled, making free agency feel like Mission: Impossible.
In a piece headlined “The Lakers Don’t Have to Cling to Their Superstar Dreams,” The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks noted, “Even if they don’t sign stars right away, the team is in good shape moving forward.”
Of course, it’s moving forward slowly, which isn’t the Laker Way.
As GM Rob Pelinka noted — with Magic covering his mouth comically after his second $50,000 fine for tampering — “Let’s face it, in this league, you can’t have an elite team if you don’t have the elite players.”
Win, lose or draw, it’s what still makes them the Lakers after all these years.
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