By Bryan Toporek
When The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski broke the news Tuesday that the Los Angeles Lakers agreed to trade D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and this year’s No. 27 overall pick, the entirety of Basketball Twitter did a double-take. Upon verifying that yes, this was Woj’s real account, shock soon turned to dread.
Uh oh. LeBron James really might become a Laker in 2018.
On the surface, it’s stunning that Los Angeles gave up on the No. 2 overall pick from two summers ago, particularly for the meager price of a late first-round selection and Lopez’s expiring contract. Russell’s tenure in L.A. hadn’t been smooth sailing—between his constant feuds with former head coach Byron Scott, SnapchatGate and his up-and-down sophomore campaign—but he’s one of three players in NBA history to average at least 26 points, eight assists and six rebounds per 100 possessions in his age-19 or -20 campaign.
The other two? LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
Once the Lakers landed the No. 2 overall pick in May’s draft lottery, though, the writing appeared to be on the wall for Russell’s future (or lack thereof) in Tinseltown. Assuming L.A. stood pat and selected UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball, the defensive concerns of a Ball-Russell pairing perhaps outweighed the offensive upside. Ball only further fanned those flames upon telling reporters after his first predraft workout with the Lakers, “They just need a leader, a point guard.”
According to Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding, Lakers head coach Luke Walton “entered the season asking Russell to be less of a know-it-all and more of a leader,” making Ball’s quote all the more telling. The Lakers reportedly felt Russell was “inconsistent with his professionalism” as a sophomore, per Ding, which gave them pause about considering him as a franchise cornerstone. On Tuesday, Ding reported Walton “concluded that Russell wasn’t going to develop into what the Lakers wanted, essentially making him a tradable asset.”
According to ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne, the Lakers called “multiple teams” in the lottery to gauge their interest in acquiring Russell, but surprisingly found no takers. Once they weren’t able to land a second lottery pick, shipping him to Brooklyn for Lopez’s expiring contract and the No. 27 overall pick became as much about sloughing off Mozgov’s horrendous deal as it was giving up on Russell’s upside. While new team president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka could have bided their time with Russell to see how he and Ball co-existed, they have their eyes on a bigger prize: a return to superstar glory.
Indiana Pacers forward Paul George’s interest in joining the Lakers has been the league’s worst-kept secret since February’s trade deadline, and those embers grew hotter over recent days. According to Wojnarowski, George informed the Indiana Pacers this past weekend that he plans to leave the franchise upon becoming a free agent in 2018, “preferably” for the Lakers. While the Lakers did not “currently intend to part with any of their young assets” in a trade for George as of Sunday, per ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne, a hotter-than-expected market for his rental services may have forced their hand.
On Tuesday, Shelburne and ESPN.com’s Marc Stein reported the Pacers and Lakers were “engaged in Paul George trade discussions,” with Indiana hot after L.A.’s No. 2 overall pick. A Lakers source told the ESPN.com duo there’s “zero chance” of them giving up either this year’s second overall selection or Brandon Ingram, who went No. 2 last year. Beyond that, however, Johnson and Pelinka appear to be working overtime to find a suitable offer for Indiana.
Stein reported Tuesday that after trading Russell, L.A. was hoping to entice the Pacers by offering the Nos. 27 and 28 picks along with either forward Julius Randle or guard Jordan Clarkson. Assuming that isn’t enough to pique Indiana’s interest, the Lakers also reportedly reached out to the Sacramento Kings to gauge whether they’d trade the Nos. 5 and 10 picks for their second overall selection, per Turner Sports’ David Aldridge. Had the Kings agreed, L.A. reportedly would have turned around and flipped one of those picks in a package for George, according to Aldridge. (Thus far, Sacramento has rebuffed the Lakers’ offer.)
Acquiring George, whether via trade this summer or free agency in 2018, is only a portion of the Lakers’ master plan. Not only do they hope to lure George; they want a second superstar to pair alongside him, Ingram and Ball.
In an ideal world, it’d be LeBron James.
Prior to Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, Wojnarowski wrote that if James overcame the historic 3-1 deficit and snapped Cleveland’s 52-year title drought, he’d feel empowered to eventually flee the Cavaliers in free agency. That talk bubbled to the surface again during the 2017 Finals thanks to The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, who cited multiple league sources in saying the Lakers or Los Angeles Clippers appear to be “viable destinations” for James in free agency next summer. Wojnarowski echoed that sentiment on a mid-June podcast (via Dan Feldman of NBC Sports), while Ding noted James’ wife, Savannah, would reportedly like to live in Los Angeles full time. According to ESPN.com’s J.A. Adande, “During the NBA Finals, the pregame courtside chatter kept circling back to LeBron and the belief he wants to get to L.A., where he has a house in Brentwood and an office on the Warner Bros. studio lot.”
Numerous front offices in years past have gone belly-up when attempting to sign James in free agency, but the subtle signs tying him to Hollywood are growing increasingly louder. Ridding themselves of Mozgov’s albatross of a contract, even at the cost of selling low on a former No. 2 overall pick, would be worth every penny if they’re able to bring in both George and James over the next 12 months.
If the Lakers can move Jordan Clarkson as part of a George trade, allow Julius Randle to walk as a restricted free agent next summer and use the stretch provision on the remaining two years of Luol Deng’s contract, they’d have roughly $64 million in available cap space, according to The Vertical’s Bobby Marks. While that wouldn’t be enough to max out both James and George—they’d need $66.3 million under a projected $102 million salary cap—shedding Deng rather than stretching him would give them the needed ammunition to sign both James and George to full max deals.
As Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus noted, there’s a tangible financial benefit for L.A. to acquire George via trade rather than waiting for free agency. Not only would the Lakers gain his Bird rights, allowing them to exceed the salary cap to re-sign him, they could renegotiate and extend his contract to a five-year, $175.7 million pact after a six-month waiting period (including 2017-18), per Pincus. Even after doing so, L.A. would still have nearly enough cap space to sign LeBron to a full max deal if it let Randle walk and stretched Deng.
With James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in the midst of head-scratching front office upheaval, the likelihood of him fleeing Northeast Ohio appears to be growing by the day. If the Lakers are confident in their ability to land both George and James, shedding Russell to rid themselves of Mozgov’s cap-clogging deal was a necessary evil, even if he winds up reaching his enormous offensive potential in Brooklyn. If they strike out on James, the likes of Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins or Isaiah Thomas could catch their eye as a complement to George.
That puts enormous pressure on Johnson and Pelinka to cash in on the cap space they created over the next 12 months. If they wind up striking out again with top-tier free agents in 2018, they’ll have needlessly traded Russell without seeing whether he could complement Ball. In Brooklyn, the Ohio State product may have the perfect environment to make L.A. regret its decision, too.
The Nets will enter the 2017-18 campaign with virtually nonexistent expectations, which should afford Russell more freedom to make mistakes than he had with the Lakers. Head coach Kenny Atkinson has a reputation for focusing on player development, having helped usher in Jeremy Lin’s “Linsanity” era with the New York Knicks. Whereas Russell and Scott engaged in a yearlong feud over pick-and-roll usage, Atkinson will have no such hesitation using Russell in that way. With Lin in the fold, the Nets can tinker with running Russell off-ball, similar to how the Lakers used him in the final month of the 2016-17 season.
It seems as though concerns with Russell’s intangibles—namely leadership and personality—outweighed intrigue with his other on-court skills in L.A., and the same could be true in Brooklyn. Conversely, the trade could serve as a wake-up call for him, reminding him that draft status becomes meaningless the minute after a prospect is selected. Being a former No. 2 overall pick won’t protect him from flushing out of the NBA if he doesn’t exert more effort defensively and take productive criticism without expressing umbrage. (See: Bennett, Anthony.)
If Russell lives up to his potential in Brooklyn, the Lakers may soon grow to regret trading him. But with George perhaps soon on his way and a marquee free agent perhaps following him in 2018, Johnson and Pelinka were willing to gamble on their ability to restore the Lakers brand to its once-lofty heights. Losing Russell could hurt, but rolling out a starting five with Paul George and LeBron James, Russell Westbrook or DeMarcus Cousins in 2018-19 could erase any regret.