EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — The Los Angeles Lakers’ impressive run to a Las Vegas summer league championship was still on Magic Johnson’s mind when he returned home to introduce Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, his biggest free agent signing to date.
When asked to explain why he was excited about adding the talented two-way guard to the young core that excelled in Vegas, Magic brought out a little Showtime.
“If we don’t defend, we can’t run,” Johnson said Tuesday, his voice rising with excitement. “And we want to run, run, run, run, run. You can’t do that unless you get stops. So I’m going to love to see him on one wing, B.I. (Brandon Ingram) on the other. (Lonzo) Ball is in the middle. Julius (Randle) trailing, (Brook) Lopez trailing after that — whoooooo! It’s going to be awesome.”
As president of basketball operations, Johnson is responsible for creating and executing a plan to return the Lakers to championship contention after the worst four-year stretch in franchise history. Yet he realizes he’s equally responsible for selling that plan to his players, potential free agents and the Lakers’ vast worldwide fan base.
Not many people can talk like the Lakers’ loquacious Hall of Famer, and Magic says he’s even better when he really has something to sell.
After Johnson’s coup in landing Caldwell-Pope last week was followed by an eye-catching performance in Las Vegas from league MVP Ball and his summertime teammates, this long-struggling franchise is showing signs of life.
Magic intends to make sure everybody knows it.
“We’re already better,” Johnson said. “I’ll tell you what, I would not want to miss a Laker game this season, because it’s going to be exciting every single night. Just like we saw in summer league, it was exciting every game, and it’s going to happen during the season, too. It’s going to be amazing.”
The Lakers entered the offseason at the lowest point in the 16-time NBA champion franchise’s history. Los Angeles won just 91 games in the past four seasons combined, and owner Jeanie Buss blew up her front office last season while the Lakers missed the playoffs in four straight years for the first time ever.
When Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka took over in February, they mapped out a plan to fix the franchise. They made a list of objectives, ranging from adding a pass-first point guard to preserving enough salary-cap space for two max contracts in 2018 free agency.
They traded D’Angelo Russell to create that cap room last month, and they subsequently drafted Ball and Vegas championship game MVP Kyle Kuzma to flesh out a young core that promptly won the summer league. Their loyal fans packed Las Vegas for the past two weeks, producing the league’s first sold-out game against Boston on July 8 and cheering on the youngsters who represent hope after the Lakers’ steady half-decade decline.
“I think what we saw in Vegas is that there is a new energy around the Lakers,” said Pelinka, Johnson’s constant companion from their pre-workout morning phone calls to their entire workdays spent in each other’s offices. “We have to find greatness in the details before we can get another championship trophy, and that’s what everyone is committed to here. I know each of our players that are here today are committed to that, and that’s what KCP is committed to as well.”
The Lakers’ team bus from summer league play returned to El Segundo moments before Caldwell-Pope’s introductory news conference, and the summer stars stayed in the gym to welcome their new teammate. Ball sat in the front row next to Ingram, who stuck around in Vegas for the past two weeks to be with his teammates, even though his summer season ended after one game due to injury precautions.
Caldwell-Pope agreed to a one-year, $18 million deal to keep open his options next summer, but the mere fact that the longtime Detroit starter would agree to join the rebuilding Lakers left Johnson visibly grateful. Magic’s father back home in Michigan helped to sell him on Caldwell-Pope, who was Earvin Sr.’s favorite Piston.
Caldwell-Pope was largely quiet while receiving his new gold No. 1 jersey, but he already sounded excited about his fit in coach Luke Walton’s plan for an up-tempo offense manned by versatile players filling multiple positions.
“I think that’s part of my game, just running the wing, defending,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I’m good for running. I run every day. That’s me. I like to run. We get the rebound, I’m already going down the court. When we get a stop, I’m going. I’m just excited.”
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