It’s been roughly a week since Adrian Wojnarowski of the Vertical announced that D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov had been traded to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and the 27th overall pick. Even now as I repeat it, anger still builds inside. Anger and confusion. I’ve gone over the trade and I’ve gone over the press conferences, and the same thought creeps into my mind: “This trade had nothing to do with cap space, nor did it have anything to do with D’Angelo’s constantly reported immaturity. This trade was made because Magic wanted a new face of the Lakers. One that he wants and that he chooses.”
In the NFL or even in the MLB when a new regime takes over, it usually wants to put its stamp on the franchise immediately. Usually, that results in the coach or manager being fired. In this particular case, the coach was a fan favorite in Luke Walton, not to mention he was a favorite of Magic’s because he runs an offense that he wants to see the Lakers play in. Unfortunately, that meant that they had to let go of someone else.
The “Face” of the Lakers
In the press conference introducing Lonzo Ball, Magic called him “the new face of the Lakers, the guy who I think will lead us back to where we want to get to.” When I go into my sons room and look at the wall, there is a poster. On this poster is a Lakers player. That player isn’t Julius Randle or Brandon Ingram, or even Jordan Clarkson. That player is D’Angelo Russell. Most fans who had a poster of the latest crop of young Lakers had an image of D’Angelo Russell, or in some cases it was a Fat Head of Russell driving to the basket. Whether you liked him or not, D’Angelo Russell was the face of the franchise, and his attitude and swagger demanded that be so. Magic Johnson, a man who demands all the attention in any room he is in, wouldn’t let that be.
Even leading up to the draft and weeks before it, Johnson was asked which player in the current crop he saw himself in. Without hesitation, he said Lonzo Ball. Despite the countless reports that the Lakers favored other players such as De’Aaron Fox, Josh Jackson, or Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball was the clear favorite from the start. According to many scouts, he fit perfectly with Luke Walton’s offense and despite a poor showing against Kentucky (and De’Aaron Fox), Magic continued to treat him as the transcendent savior the Lakers have been waiting for.
So, where does this lead us? On one hand, we have a player that is clearly the somewhat established “face” of the franchise. On the other hand, we have a player that is drafted by the former face of the franchise who sees himself reincarnated. Before you say, “Well, both are point guards, so one makes the other expandable,” that is just not true. In fact, many scouts were elated to hear about the pick because they felt that Russell and Ball could be a tremendous offensive force. Russell had potential to be a half court maestro with the ability to lull you to sleep and also play off ball as a transitional two, while Ball has an insane ability to read plays in transition long before they happen. Both are solid shooters (though it is unknown if Ball’s success will translate to the NBA), so the idea of positionless basketball was, in the end, too good to be true.
My player, my choice, my face
The fact is that Magic Johnson couldn’t have a player from the previous regime be the face of the franchise. Sure, Russell showed signs of immaturity and maybe a lack of ability to lead his players. That doesn’t mean you ship off a player you yourself stated would be an all-star caliber player. Shipping off a talented player for “lack of leadership qualities” is just short sighted and a façade to cover up the underlying reason. I won’t debate at this point what was stated; after all, if you know me, I defended Russell with facts almost daily. The fact is that Johnson’s reason for giving up on a player just past his second season was that it simply wasn’t his player. It wasn’t his draft pick. It wasn’t his reflection he saw in a player. I understand that it’s best to tell fans other reasons in an attempt to appease the Russell fans, but this is just a smokescreen for the real facts. He wanted Russell out so that Ball could be the leader, at least until some magic free agent decides to take the reins from him, making this move moot in the end anyway.
Starting shooting guard for the Lakers: Cap Space
This trade was ill conceived, and overall it was a move that just left a bad taste in the mouth of many fans. Losing the Mozgov contract was necessary in the long run, but totally unnecessary right now when the cap space you will need only comes next season. By shipping D’Angelo Russell off because you wanted your player on all the billboards, you left a GAPING hole at the two spot. Will Ball be great? Probably. That said, who is he going to pass to that can shoot beyond the arch consistently? Out of every Laker on the team last year, Russell and Young had the best three-point percentage and it wasn’t close. Now you need to hopefully find someone that can shoot while preserving cap space, which leaves you scraping the bottom of the barrel for a guy on a 1 + 1 deal to fill the second guard spot.
At this point, I find it very difficult to find where we are going to be able to get more wins than we did last season. Free agency starts on July 1st so that could certainly change, though it’s going to be difficult to replace D’Angelo Russell’s production and talent with an older player on a one year “tryout” deal. In the end, I have to close the book on Russell and my favorite Laker player. I will root for Lonzo to be everything that people seem to think he will be. I will also hope that the Lakers finally get the “save cap space for next year” plan to work and score big in 2018. For now, the past has tainted my outlook on that. We’ve played this game before and failed because we weren’t showing enough improvement on the court to convince big names to come to LA. Will that be different now or are the Lakers truly insane? After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for all your Lakers news.