Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — For a Los Angeles Lakers franchise that has lost Kobe Bryant and a historic number of games over the past four seasons, the increasing likelihood that Paul George soon arrives and the possibility that LeBron James eventually joins him is a testament to how the power of the brand holds strong.
The George scenario has been omnipresent for some time, and Cleveland‘s loss in the 2017 NBA Finals has led Lakers officials to hear more whispers about James’ interest in a final chapter in Los Angeles, where his wife would like to live full time, per sources. The Lakers have long known the appreciation James, who grew up a fan of the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys, holds for their iconic brand.
The first order of business comes Thursday night, though. That’s part of the momentum behind the franchise, too.
Hotshot UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball desperately wants to be drafted by his hometown team, and the Lakers are nearing a final decision to select him with the No. 2 overall pick, according to league sources.
Some final planning and discussion remains to be done before the draft Thursday, per team sources, but Ball logged quality time with Lakers president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka in a second predraft meeting Friday.
The Lakers, especially Pelinka, have tried to keep an open mind throughout workouts and interviews to settle on the best player available to them. But an appreciation for Ball’s all-around upside has emerged that transcends the local fanfare over him and the constant publicity his father generates. And while athletic Kansas forward Josh Jackson remains a possibility at No. 2, his shooting ability is a concern.
The Lakers’ suspicion that Ball might wind up being better than presumptive No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz—and perhaps the Boston Celtics‘ suspicion that Jackson or Duke forward Jayson Tatum also could be better than Fultz—will make the top of this draft one to be analyzed for years.
Many league executives view Fultz as the best option largely because he has the least bust potential, but that clearly wasn’t a strong enough selling point to Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, whose decision to trade down to No. 3 will hand Fultz to the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Lakers got a firsthand look at Fultz in a workout Thursday, so the fact that they are leaning toward Ball (even if Fultz was available) as this week began is telling.
Between the last few years of losing and some lottery luck, the Lakers have assembled a core of players who could one day be special. But as well as the team has drafted, it has also gotten to see Brandon Ingram, D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Ivica Zubac, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. closely enough to know what imperfections each player possesses.
Ingram has already been diligent and impressive in offseason workouts, affirming the Lakers’ belief that he is their most special prospect despite his shaky shooting as a rookie.
D’Angelo Russell’s inconsistent professionalism has given the Lakers some concern about his long-term future.Danny Moloshok/Associated Press
There is still a lot to like about both Russell and Randle as well, but there are also ongoing questions about how well they take criticism, according to team sources. Lakers head coach Luke Walton entered the season asking Russell to be less of a know-it-all and more of a leader for the group, while he hoped Randle would emulate Draymond Green in using every perceived slight as motivation. Though both players improved their games, neither advanced as far as Walton had hoped. Russell was inconsistent with his professionalism, and Randle often lost messages given to him if they were delivered harshly.
Whether the uncertainties surrounding players as young as Russell and Randle are meaningful enough that the Lakers are willing to trade them remains to be seen. It’d be a huge risk to sell low on Russell, in particular.
But every evaluation of the young roster is at least tangentially linked to the club’s decisions on established superstars such as George and James. How does a traditional center such as Zubac fit in the modern NBA? Will Nance stay healthy?
The Lakers have been disinclined to gut their young core to trade for George since they could sign him as a free agent in 2018. But since the Lakers would have to trade some of their youngsters for salary-cap space to sign both George and another max-caliber player such as James, giving up a solid player in Clarkson and his $50 million contract in a George trade comes much more easily. Trading Clarkson for a current or future draft pick in a separate deal makes a ton of sense given the Lakers’ need to keep adding talent and desire to clear future payroll.
Paul George’s reverence for Kobe Bryant and his ties to Los Angeles has made a move to the Lakers a possibility in 2018, if not sooner.Michael Conroy/Associated Press/Associated Press
Assuming the Lakers follow through with drafting Ball, there will be pros and cons with him, too. Such is life with young NBA players—especially teenagers.
For now, however, Ball’s star potential makes him an ideal fit for the sweet-passing, fun-to-watch identity Walton is establishing.
There also appears to be real hope another star is on the way in George, a Kobe disciple who wants to be a Laker. That possibility alone is a welcome change for a Lakers franchise that has struggled of late.
They lost 200-plus games over the past four years, got snubbed by Dwight Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency, bid their teary farewell to Bryant and then signed Timofey Mozgov and Luol Dengto brutal long-term contracts.
Despite all of that, the Lakers are now driving interest up in this draft and remain as relevant as any team in the NBA. Depending on what happens with George and/or James, that could be even more true in the years to come.
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.