Free agency in the National Basketball Association has turned competition into a year-round affair. Once upon a time, the off-season used to give players and fans alike a respite from the challenges of keeping up with, and keeping tabs on, movements in the league, actual or prospective. Not anymore. Instead of quiet moments enabling protagonists to take stock of their accomplishments, or lack thereof, flurry after flurry of activity now mark campaigns and turnarounds. The hectic schedule in the midst of the pandemic serves only to accentuate the speed with which changes occur; in one particular case, eagerness got the better of trade partners to the point where the Commissioner’s Office has had to step in and probe its beginnings, its seeming consummation even prior to the start of the official negotiating phase, and its equally abrupt end.
Considering the stakes involved, the Lakers arguably stand as the prime example of the franchises’ need to keep pace with each other. Fresh off a bubble-accentuated championship run, they have been compelled to hit the ground running in their quest to put up the best-possible title defense. In part, it’s because they know their window is relatively short; LeBron James, while still the best of the best in the NBA, is turning 36 next month, and history has invariably dealt precipitous falls to supposed rocking-chair candidates defying the odds; in larger measure, it’s because they have no choice; in the modern era, doing nothing means falling behind. Even with the Larry O’Brien Trophy in hand–or, perhaps, precisely with the Larry O’Brien Trophy in hand given the targets on their backs.
So the Lakers got busy as soon as free agency began. And, in doing so, general manager Rob Pelinka proved relentlessly ruthless. He sent erstwhile starter Danny Green packing for Sixth Man of the Year runner-up Dennis Schroder. He then one-upped himself, netting actual SMoTY winner Montrezl Harrell (which then forced successful reclamation project Dwight Howard to delete a tweet announcing a return to the purple and gold and promptly move to the Sixers). For good measure, he tapped Wesley Matthews as the designated three-and-D appointee and secured the return of vital cog Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. All while he remains on the lookout for more productive deals to make. Not bad for a honcho who was publicly pilloried by living legend Magic Johnson just last year and who finished no better than seventh in the Executive of the Year sweepstakes.
Not surprisingly, the Lakers aren’t done. They may already have enough talent to let Avery Bradley walk away and join the Heat, their Finals foils, but they’re keen on staying active in free agency and, in the process, becoming even better. Whether they continue to have the financial flexibility to maintain their relevancy in the market remains to be seen; from the outside looking in, their deal with Matthews involved the use of their bi-annual exception, thus placing them in a hard cap. Creative sign-and-trade propositions, coupled with their unique status to lure title-hungry players with bargain-basement salaries, figure to keep them pushing to improve their lineup.
Which, in a nutshell, means the Lakers are poised to begin the 2020-21 season as heavy favorites. Never mind that they’ll have little rest and no time to enjoy the fruits of their previous labor. With James and fellow All-NBA First Team member Anthony Davis leading the way, they’re where they deservedly are: on top, surveying the jockeying for position at their feet. And, certainly, it helps that projected threats have become weaker even with the start of the season still a month away. The Warriors have lost Klay Thompson to injury. The Bucks have failed to add Bogdan Bogdanovic due to overeagerness and loose lips. The Clippers have become weaker following key departures.
Indeed, the Lakers are right where they want to be: first among equals.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.