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How Can the Lakers Get Out of This Mess?

A report on Tuesday detailed how L.A.’s premier basketball franchise turned into a circus over the past couple of seasons. Magic Johnson and Luke Walton are out, but what’s next for the team?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“I’m not a regretful person,” Magic Johnson said on television last week. He wasn’t talking about his 140-character game recaps on Twitter or his frequent exclamation point usage, both of which I do, personally, find regrettable. What Magic didn’t regret was his short tenure as Lakers president. He didn’t regret signing a team of jettisoned role players to surround LeBron James, nor did he regret winking at Paul George, which led to the league’s largest-ever tampering fine, and was the first of three accusations of tampering that impacted the Lakers over the past year. He didn’t regret the public manner in which the Lakers went after Anthony Davis, and he sure as hell didn’t regret the public manner in which he left the organization. After all, now he can tweet about whichever player he wants. He is, in his own words, a free bird once again.

The Lakers should regret the entire 2018-19 season. Not one face of the franchise has gone undragged. On Monday, ESPN’s Baxter Holmes reported on a number of failures for the organization, beginning with the hiring of Magic and Rob Pelinka in 2017, neither of whom had any front-office experience. To briefly recap the embarrassments: Magic and Pelinka chose a player in the draft without consulting the team’s scouts; the working environment was hostile, turnover spiked, and multiple staffers had panic attacks; a club legend exited in mortifying fashion, telling the media before owner Jeanie Buss, Pelinka, or, well, anyone; Buss might’ve been delegating ownership responsibilities to Linda Rambis, Kurt Rambis’s wife, who reportedly “controls and manipulates Jeanie;” various players knew they were on the trading block for months, damaging team chemistry; Pelinka often sat in on head coach Luke Walton’s pregame and halftime meetings, which was “weird” and detrimental; the post-Walton coaching search ended with their third choice, Frank Vogel, taking the job after options 1 and 2 walked away amid dysfunction; Vogel was then saddled with assistant coach Jason Kidd, who has a history of domestic violence.

Oh, and Pelinka might’ve lied about Kobe Bryant having dinner with Heath Ledger.

This has to be as bad as it gets. Right? There is nowhere for the Lakers to go but up. But how do they go about fixing this mess? There are a few steps the franchise can take—even with this same leadership group—to return to competence, including these three:

Make the Smart, Uncontroversial, Obvious Draft Pick

Usually the organizations with the most pressure to do well in the draft are small markets that aren’t attractive free-agent destinations or are marquee teams pushing the salary cap limit. Those franchises have no alternative to the draft for acquiring new talent. But the Lakers aren’t anywhere close to such a situation. L.A. can clear up to $32.5 million in cap space this summer, and is both a large market and a city players want to live in, so much so that many NBA stars spend their offseasons there. But players also talk, and read, and watch the news, and the sunshine doesn’t mean as much when there’s a cloud over the organization and the Clippers offer an alternative Southern California option in the same building. In case free agency winds up being fruitless for the Lakers—or worse, a repeat of last season’s meme team—the franchise must nail the draft.

Per Holmes, last year’s draft was one of the earliest unsettling moments of Johnson and Pelinka’s diarchy. The Lakers selected Moritz Wagner with the 25th overall pick, a choice that “shocked” Lakers scouts and staffers sitting in a separate room. Wagner, a center, averaged 10.4 minutes and 4.8 points last season.

Miraculously, Los Angeles, which entered the 2019 lottery selection with a 9.4 percent chance of landing in the top four, landed the no. 4 pick in the draft. (If the Pelicans hadn’t gotten the no. 1 pick, I’d be hesitant to call NBA lottery conspiracy theories theories anymore.) Pelinka will have only that fourth overall to work with, as the Lakers had to convey their second-round pick to Atlanta as part of the 2015 deal L.A. made to acquire [lights in memoriam candle] Roy Hibbert.

The front office shouldn’t take any risks in the draft (think Anthony Bennett) (No, let’s hit closer to home: think Javaris Crittenton.) (Sam Jacobson?) (Mark Madsen?) (Brian Cook?) ([Whispers.] Lonzo Ball?). The Ringer’s (excellent!) Draft Guide suggests De’Andre Hunter, the national champion forward out of Virginia. Three of the Lakers’ top scorers are at forward in LeBron James, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma, but Hunter would provide in the two areas the roster needs help most, spot-up shooting and defensive versatility.

Identify and Find a Free Agent Without Tampering

Look, Magic probably fixed the Lakers’ tampering issues the moment he excused himself from the job. Two of the three tampering fines the organization received in the past year were his doing, not including Magic’s most recent near-tampering incident involving Ben Simmons, which the NBA found was not in violation of league rules. But that reputation isn’t gone (what a fun parting gift!), and the Lakers will be watched closely leading up to June 30.

L.A. is often being connected to the biggest possible names: Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker, Tobias Harris, Khris Middleton, and Al Horford. But those connections haven’t always been positive. In December, Durant called the environment around LeBron “toxic,” though he added that’s not LeBron’s fault; Kawhi’s been linked to the other L.A. team for months; and ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne doesn’t expect Thompson to even give the Lakers a meeting.

The next tier of Irving, Butler, or Walker is attainable, if Pelinka can sell the Lakers laurels in a league-approved manner. And while it’s ignorant to suggest franchises aren’t having premature, technically-illegal conversations with free agents of interest, discretion is key, and L.A. spent the past year being the loudest team in the NBA.

Move Past the Anthony Davis Soap Opera

The Anthony Davis trade that never was reached a new level of debacle for the Lakers in the run-up to the 2019 trade deadline. Davis’s agent, Rich Paul, went public with the trade request before informing the Pelicans organization, which is, quite frankly, just rude; many players in the Lakers locker room were well aware that they were on the verge of getting shipped off, causing rifts; Magic insinuated that New Orleans acted in bad faith, having no intention of dealing Davis despite hearing out trade packages, something a Lakers front-office staffer called “very arrogant on our part,” later adding, “I don’t think we have a plan” for free agency.

When Davis originally declared his intention not to re-sign with New Orleans, he was all the Pelicans had. Now that New Orleans has turned over its front office—hiring David Griffin to run the team as general manager—and acquired the first overall draft pick, the franchise has a different outlook and more options. But it’s important to remember that the Lakers, no matter how dark it seems now, have assets as well. The same young core they allegedly offered up last February is still under contract, if not a tad devalued because of health issues that shut down key pieces’ seasons. (Lonzo Ball suffered a left ankle sprain; Brandon Ingram experienced blood clots.) The second LeBron decided to sign, Los Angeles became a win-now team; the Lakers don’t have a win-now roster. It’s worth dusting off the package of players offered for AD in talks with a franchise desperate for change (like the Wizards and a trade for Bradley Beal) or with a team that simply has practical things the Lakers need (like shooting). Anything to bring the inflammation down.