The Los Angeles Lakers will miss the post-season for a sixth year in a row. LeBron James’ season will end in May for the first time since 2004-05, his second year in the NBA, snapping personal streaks of 13 straight postseason appearances and eight straight NBA Finals berths.
There is rarely a single moment that derails a team’s entire season. For the 2018-19 Lakers, there is plenty of blame to go around. From injuries, to underwhelming player production, to questionable management decisions, the most anticipated season in L.A. in years morphed into a cautionary tale that could be retold around the league for decades. This is how the Lakers got here.
Paul George, a Southern California native who long stated his desire to return to play near his Palmdale home, was perceived to be a rental player on an expiring contract. Just taking a pit stop with the Thunder before joining the lineage of Lakers greats, many around the league assumed.
When he veered from that course and re-signed with Oklahoma City in the summer of 2018, league sources told ESPN it was always more of what the Thunder did right than what the Lakers did wrong. The Thunder traded for him, after all, taking a chance with no promises of a long-term commitment. Then they worked to make him feel at home, selling a partnership with Russell Westbrook.
George never gave the Lakers an opportunity to take their shot. But he had a wealth of information available to him about the inner workings of the Lakers without ever hearing a word from Magic Johnson. For example, George played in Oklahoma City with Corey Brewer in the second half of the 2017-18 season, after Brewer was waived by L.A. in February. Brewer divulged his Lakers experience to George, sources said, probably telling him what an epic shit-show it was under management.
And George’s agent, Aaron Mintz of CAA, was intimately familiar with the organization. Before Rich Paul of Klutch Sports garnered attention representing two clients on the Lakers — LeBron and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — Mintz represented two-fifths of the starting lineup, D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle. (Mintz and Paul aren’t alone with their seeming outsized influence; Jeff Schwartz of Excel Sports Management currently advises both Brandon Ingram and Tyson Chandler, and Joe Branch of Roc Nation Sports reps Moe Wagner and Josh Hart.)
Russell, taken with the No. 2 pick in 2015, and Randle, the No. 7 pick in 2014, were drafted by the previous front-office regime, general manager Mitch Kupchak and vice president Jim Buss.
Once Johnson and Rob Pelinka took over in February 2017, their vision was simple: Develop the young talent they already had, but also clear cap space to pursue free agents like James, who they believed could fast-track the franchise’s path back to relevance.
Their first task: offloading Timofey Mozgov, signed to a four-year, $64 million deal just seven months prior by Kupchak and Buss in their final, fatal free agency in charge of the team. Johnson and Pelinka found a taker in Brooklyn, sending Russell and Mozgov east for Brook Lopez and the No. 27 pick in the 2017 draft.
Giving up on Russell — a pace-and-space guard suited for the modern NBA — after just two seasons was a risk, but L.A. got back a former All-Star in Lopez and a pick that turned into Kyle Kuzma. Plus, L.A. got out from under Mozgov’s monstrosity of a deal.
But rather than leave well enough alone, Johnson couldn’t help but take a swipe at Russell on the guard’s way out the door.
“He has the talent to be an All-Star. We want to thank him for what he did for us. But what I needed was a leader,” Johnson said days after the trade in June 2017. “I needed somebody also that can make the other players better and also [somebody] that players want to play with.”
The following season, Randle — Mintz’s other client on the Lakers — saw his role fluctuate, bouncing from starter to bench player, from playing big minutes to a much more limited role.
Only after pressure from fans and media mounted did the team stabilize Randle’s role.
At least that’s how it was perceived, stirring questions of just how strong the organization’s backbone was if it could succumb to public scrutiny.
Four months later, when the Lakers’ pursuit of James to fill the same forward slot Randle occupied had become widely known, the former Kentucky product again became an afterthought.
Even though the Lakers controlled Randle’s rights as a restricted free agent, L.A. never made an offer to him, sources told ESPN. This despite coach Luke Walton and his staff’s preference to keep Randle, as earlier reported by The Athletic and confirmed by ESPN.
Mintz eventually asked the Lakers to renounce Randle’s rights and navigated his client to the New Orleans Pelicans, where he signed a two-year, $18 million contract with a player option on the second year. Randle was won over, sources said, by the fact that the Pelicans really wanted him — which wasn’t the feeling he got from the Lakers.
L.A. signed Rajon Rondo to a one-year, $9 million deal with money it theoretically could have offered to Randle. This after the Lakers agreed to a one-year, $12 million deal to re-sign Caldwell-Pope. Any offer to Randle that was below what Caldwell-Pope received was untenable, considering Randle was more productive the previous season. Especially so with Randle playing in all 82 games and Caldwell-Pope available for just 74 because of legal issues.
And so it was with that background that Paul George, who donned No. 24 when he arrived in the NBA because of his childhood affinity for Kobe Bryant, didn’t even grant the Lakers a meeting.
He didn’t waste anyone’s time, throwing a party with Westbrook in Oklahoma City celebrating his new deal the minute free agency opened that Saturday night. The consequences of George’s decision forced L.A. to roll over its cap flexibility in the hopes of landing another star in the summer of 2019 — and ultimately wasting James’ first year with the Lakers.