Whether or not LeBron James needed to be convinced to join the Los Angeles Lakers by the time he sat down with Magic Johnson on the first night of free agency last year is another topic for another day, but it’s a story worth revisiting. During a three-hour meeting in Brentwood, Magic laid out his vision for the next phase of James’s career: Yes, he would be given the chance to be the next face of the NBA’s most glamorous franchise and all the spoils that come with it, but more specifically, James would be empowered to play the type of basketball that would help him ease into his golden years. After nearly a decade of teams surrounding James with dead-eye shooters who could make defenses pay for loading up against his freight-train drives to the hoop, Magic and GM Rob Pelinka wanted to zag. The way they saw it, James needed to play more in the post and be complemented by playmakers and defenders.
The plan was an abject failure, in part because the players they signed were not good. Rajon Rondo’s long-overrated defense was abysmal, Michael Beasley lasted only 26 games before heading back to China, and Lance Stephenson was better at creating air-guitar licks than coherent offense. Perhaps realizing their mistake, the front office panic-traded for shooters Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala at the deadline. Again, awful. Even with their hired guns in the mix, the Lakers finished second to last in the NBA in 3-point percentage, behind a historically bad Knicks team, and in the bottom third in offensive efficiency.
With Magic now gone and Pelinka’s role in flux, the Lakers head back to the drawing board with plenty of cash to burn but fewer get-talent-rich-quick schemes than they originally thought would be at their fingertips. And as they try to make sense of a team built with young players but led by a 34-year-old Hall of Famer, it seems the progressive futurism they once trumpeted has given way to reaching back into the past.
On Friday, the Lakers parted ways with head coach Luke Walton, a fait accompli for whoever was or is running the organization. The names on the Lakers’ short list to replace Walton, according to multiple reports, should sound familiar: Mark Jackson, Monty Williams, and Tyronn Lue. Lue is described by ESPN as the “strong frontrunner.” The commonality among the three, besides previous head-coaching experience? They all have a relationship with James. Jackson is a client of Rich Paul’s Klutch Sports who once upon a time quietly angled for the Cavs job. Williams was an assistant for Team USA during the Redeem Team era (and also the beloved head coach of Anthony Davis for AD’s first three seasons in the NBA). And Lue stepped over David Blatt in 2015 and helped lead James and the Cavs to Cleveland’s first NBA title.
It’s disappointing to see the Lakers, after days of being lambasted for their overreliance on blind exceptionalism, to think inside the box. Williams and Lue are fine coaches with steady hands and histories of reaching their players; Jackson probably isn’t fit to coach in the league again. Not one is an innovator. Williams, for instance, deployed Davis as a fairly traditional rim-running big man, often next to another traditional big man; Alvin Gentry, who took over in New Orleans in 2015-16, allowed Davis to let his freak flag fly and become basically an enormous wing. Jackson laid the groundwork for the Warriors’ elite defense, and then Steve Kerr came along and added everything that makes that team special. Lue probably doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to manage the many combustible personalities on LeBron’s Cavs teams; still, a master tactician he is not.
But when your first attempt at innovation leads you to Lance Stephenson, maybe stepping away from the AP English syllabus and going conventional isn’t such a bad idea. After all, the signing of James may have been a boon at the merch booth and is often a windfall in the standings, but his presence significantly restricts what a team can do from there. James expects to compete at the highest level, and so all of a team’s efforts have to be directed at maximizing the now. The Cavs got into cap hell trying to keep James’s team alive without sacrificing the one future asset (Brooklyn’s 2018 first-rounder) it had. James’s addition is also what led the Lakers and Paul to strong-arm the Pelicans in an attempt to deliver Davis to L.A. But what other choice do the Lakers have than to lean into James’s waning prime? The members of the Lakers’ precious young core are either not all they were cracked up to be, or injured, or both. The Lakers’ window is probably next season, for better or worse.
No one understands the pressures of creating a team around James better than David Griffin, the Cavs’ GM during their title run. And in a nice bit of coincidence, the news that Griffin would take over the Pelicans’ front office was reported by ESPN mere minutes after news of Walton’s firing came down. Which means the decision-maker who holds the keys to Davis’s future is the same one who once held the same role in James’s and Kyrie Irving’s lives.
But more than anything, Griffin’s hiring in New Orleans represents a fresh start, both for him and the Pelicans. For all the complications involved in dredging the franchise out of its AD-induced muck, the Pelicans job has been described to me by one person with intimate knowledge of the organization as the perfect opportunity for a GM familiar with the complications of a small market. With most of the franchise’s lead executives focused on the Saints, the other professional sports team owned by the Benson family, Dell Demps, the recently deposed GM, was essentially given a budget and a blank page. Demps, however, prioritized self-preservation, and would often placate the Saints executives rather than walk them through the nuances of the NBA. Griffin, on the other hand, has a deep background in the art of owner-wrangling, having spent most of his career in Phoenix under Robert Sarver, and then working under Dan Gilbert in Cleveland. Add in Griffin’s résumé, his blend of an analytical mind and interpersonal skills, and his relationship with Gentry from their Phoenix days, and this is a clear win for what will be the first of a few important decisions for new owner Gayle Benson.
For the first time in a very long time, the Pelicans seem to be headed in the right direction rather than spinning in place. The Lakers, meanwhile, keep finding ways to move backward.