It was a fourth-place finish that felt like a victory. It was a lottery leap that could carry them back to greatness.
Now trade it.
Get rid of it. Dump it. Turn this awesome gift into something even more valuable. Transform this bet on the future into a guarantee for the present.
If the Lakers play it right, they can package this fourth pick with some of their kids for a veteran star who could play alongside LeBron James and help attract a free-agent superstar who could instantly turn them back into championship contenders.
If the Lakers play it wrong, they will be stuck with the fourth-best player in a three-player draft. They will have a nice prospect, but they’re not in the market for a nice prospect. They can throw a draft party, but the hugs will be forced and the champagne will remained iced.
Rob Pelinka, gulp, you’re up. You wanted Magic Johnson’s title? You wanted to be the key figure in the most important decisions in this franchise’s history? This is one of them. This one is on you.
The Lakers’ heavily criticized basketball boss will have his fingers wrapped around this delicate operation, and, yeah, that doesn’t inspire much confidence, but Lakers fans can be assured of one thing.
If Pelinka messes this up, it will probably be the last thing he messes up. Pelinka needs to have a great summer to affirm the faith placed in him by owner Jeanie Buss and shadow owner Linda Rambis, and that summer starts now.
Even with their devotion to staying within the Lakers family, here’s guessing there’s only so much Buss and Rambis can take, and Pelinka’s seemingly unearned ascension into Johnson’s spot has been their biggest source of controversy. Simply put, Pelinka probably needs to hit a home run in the draft and free agency to keep his title. With Tuesday’s sudden rush of luck, he had better start swinging.
“I think it’s an extraordinary shift for us,’’ Pelinka told reporters in a conference call Tuesday. “The top five picks in the draft, if you go back in history and study, those picks alter and impact franchises.’’
Moving up from the 11th pick to the fourth pick was a indeed a miracle. The Lakers had a 9.4% chance of making that kind of jump. It was the first time in several years that a ball has bounced their way. It was a huge win, and they should celebrate their luck.
But Pelinka has to realize they didn’t hit the jackpot. They have no shot at what experts feel are the only three transformative players in this draft. There will be no Zion Williamson, no Ja Morant, no RJ Barrett.
In that slot, they’re probably getting somebody like Vanderbilt guard Darius Garland, Texas Tech guard Jarrett Culver or Virginia forward De’Andre Hunter. Neat players, but they don’t appear to be immediate impact players, and the Lakers can no longer afford to be patient.
Like it or not, they need to do everything possible to capitalize on what might be the final one or two productive years of James’ career here. They can’t do that with rookies who can’t play right away.
Unless they’re willing to trade James and start from scratch, something that absolutely wouldn’t happen before this summer anyway, they need somebody who can help him win now.
James reacted to the draft with a tweet that read, “#4**Beautiful.’’ He’s surely not tweeting about some kid guard from North Carolina.
“I think this pick can be used to advance our overall team in a trade as well,’’ Pelinka said. “The front office will be very methodical in our research and look at everything.’’
They probably will look first at New Orleans and Anthony Davis — again — but don’t count on it. Even if Davis might be even more intent on leaving a franchise that will soon be officially rebuilding around certain No. 1 pick Williamson, indications are that the Pelicans will never trade him to the Lakers. They’re telling people that if they absolutely must trade him, they don’t want to send him to the Western Conference and certainly not to the Lakers after all the trouble that James’ and Davis’ agent Rich Paul caused them this season.
There are no clear favorites for trade targets, but there are plenty of available stars out there, and it’s Pelinka’s job to figure it out before the June 20 draft in Brooklyn.
The package that was offered for Davis last year just became a lot stronger. Imagine presenting a potential trading partner with some combination of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma … and the No. 4 overall pick. That’s a pretty good start for a pretty strong remodel for somebody.
Drafts are fun. Drafts are intriguing. But drafts are for prospects, and the Lakers need to get out of the prospect business and back into the championship business.
Tuesday was a great start. The Lakers got lucky. Now they have to be smart. The best way to embrace this blessed No. 4 pick is to get rid of it.