The Lakers have fallen off after a surprisingly good start. They are well under .500 and will likely miss the playoffs for the fifth year in a row.
It’s a mild disappointment, since they added a couple of high-prized veterans to their young core, hoping to accelerate the rebuilding process. Unfortunately, Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have not been as good as expected.
Yet it’s hard to criticize the front office for adding them. The reasoning behind the moves made sense. More importantly, the Lakers didn’t commit long-term resources to them. The restraint the Magic Johnson-Rob Pelinka management duo showed while trying to upgrade the roster is one of the best signs that times truly are changing in Los Angeles.
The comparison is inevitable. Before KCP and Lopez there were Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. The two ate up a combined $136 million of the team’s cap space over four years when they signed in 2016. No one knew that both veterans would take such big steps back, but even at the time it made no sense for the front office to make those offers. The Lakers were not even close to contention, yet they made a disastrous win-now move.
Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak clearly wanted to save their jobs by improving quickly. The Lakers wanted to at least present the illusion of competence. Deng and Mozgov were supposed to help with that. Alas, it didn’t happen. The Lakers were the worst defensive team in the league, despite adding two specialists. The two highest-paid players on that team combined to score 15 points and 10 rebounds. Neither played more than 56 games or started in the last 28 games of the season.
Their struggles were embarrassing, but the opportunity cost they represented was the real concern. With them on the books, Los Angeles lacked the future cap space needed to make its 2018 plans happen. Deng is still in the roster, barely playing, muddying next summer’s free agency picture. One of the first moves Johnson and Pelinka executed was to trade away D’Angelo Russell to the talent-starved Nets just to shed Mozgov’s salary.
They managed to get Lopez back in that transaction. He has not come close to matching the production he showed in Brooklyn, but he’s still been a positive addition. The Lakers clearly needed a traditional center with experience to deploy on big lineups. He’s been valuable in that role. His 3-point shot is still not falling, but it should start to if he gets more corner looks. He’s still a force inside, which helps the team’s anemic offense. He has also been happy to ease into a smaller role to make room for the blossoming Lakers’ bigs.
Caldwell-Pope has also underwhelmed compared to expectations. He was brought in to inject shotmaking and defense into the perimeter. So far, he’s shooting 41 percent from the field and his poor decision-making stands out now that he has more freedom. His defense, however, is as sturdy as always. He’s shooting a career-best 35 percent beyond the arc, which is solid, considering the difficulty of some of his attempts. His presence has also allowed Jordan Clarkson to move to a sixth man role that clearly suits him well.
Both players have disappointed, to a degree. They are the two top earners on the roster, just like Deng and Mozgov before them, but their roles are smaller than anticipated. Their numbers are discrete, their most important contributions subtle. They are clearly not the cornerstones their contracts say they should be. Yet the fact that their deals will expire at the end of the season allows them – and the front office – to essentially escape all criticism.
It’s rarely a mistake to add a couple of veterans who can play, and Lopez and Caldwell-Pope fit that bill. They are not likely in the Lakers’ future plans, but they’ve helped them this year and should continue to do so. The two have enough value that, if the Lakers were to trade one of them, there will be no need to add a sweetener to that deal. Considering it will take one of the team’s prized young guys to shed Deng, that’s a huge plus. At worst, Lopez and KCP will end up being neutral presences.
It’s hard to judge the new regime in Los Angeles so early into its tenure. The tampering fine after communicating with Paul George when he was still under contract made them look amateurish. The Lou Williams trade was smart. The Kyle Kuzma selection looks genius, but the jury is still out on Lonzo Ball. Sticking with Luke Walton as head coach seems sensible, but he’s going through some growing pains, as most young skippers do. It’s been a bag of hits and misses.
The way the new brain trust has managed to add proven veterans on expiring deals, however, shows the Lakers are at least more forward-thinking that the past administration. That might not seem like much, but it’s a tangible accomplishment.
It might be hard for Lakers fans to appreciate Lopez when he bricks a trailer 3-pointer or Caldwell-Pope when he dribbles his way into a tough, contested mid-range jumper. Those two are overpaid role players, just like the last two veterans the team added.
Unlike those other two, however, they do offer some value. If they don’t, it won’t be hard to get rid of them. That has to be a comforting fact after the Deng-Mozgov debacle.