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    Swanson: Lakers work margins in free agency, a job well done
    • July 4, 2023

    Yes, you have that right: The Lakers got swept in the Western Conference finals and responded by bringing back almost every significant contributor from that squad.

    And, yeah, fans are happy about it.

    Thrilled, actually.

    Austin Reaves on a four-year, $56 million deal? There wasn’t any letting him – “Him!” – get away. Rui Hachimura for three years, $51 million? Better beef up the NBA’s streaming server in Japan.

    D’Angelo Russell for two years, $37 million? D-Lo for that low? A bargain. Jarred Vanderbilt, the Vandalorian, whose $4.6 contract was guaranteed Friday? This is the way.

    But, but, but! For your contrarian friends, or folks who live for free agency more than a Friday night in November, for anyone wondering: Aren’t those the same guys who couldn’t get it done against the eventual NBA champion Denver Nuggets last postseason? Who kept it close, but didn’t win a single game in that series?

    You’re going to expect a different result next time?

    Again, yep.

    “The Lakers didn’t materially get better. … Everyone is acting like they had the greatest offseason of all time.”


    — Get Up (@GetUpESPN) July 3, 2023

    If the Nuggets – who will be the favorites, as warranted – emerge from what figures again to be a wild, wild west, they’ll have done it without their super glue guy, Bruce Brown. He agreed to a two-year $45 million deal with Indiana Pacers, more than Denver could have paid him after his breakout playoff performance.

    And for all those post-parade promises, they won’t have as much to prove. The Lakers, meanwhile, will have more of something Denver had last time that they didn’t: Continuity.

    You remember, the Lakers overhauled their roster at the trade deadline and closed the regular season 18-8, eventually going from 13th place in the Western Conference to the NBA’s final four.

    But then those Lakers, learning each other still, without the benefit of a training camp or much practice time at all, ran into Denver, the rare NBA team with years of built-in chemistry.

    The Nuggets hired Coach Michael Malone and drafted two-time NBA MVP-to-be Nikola Jokic in 2015 – five Russell Westbrook teams ago. Star guard Jamal Murray joined Denver in 2016. Otherwise, the Nuggets built responsibly around their leading duo with quietly productive offseasons like the Lakers are having.

    Take last summer, when Denver brought in Brown and former Laker champion Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – not the splashiest of names, but the winningest, it turned out.

    So now, with superstars Damian Lillard and James Harden demanding trades from Portland and Philadelphia, respectively, their angsty shadows stretching further as free agency grows longer, Denver Dull has looked great on the Lakers.

    They didn’t even get a mention on ESPN’s three-hour free agency extravaganza until it was almost over. Host Malika Andrews had to check her watch and ask aloud: “My friends, how is it that we are two hours and 40 minutes into the show and we’ve barely talked about the Lakers?”

    Weird, right?

    But the Lakers are not players in the NBA’s offseason palace intrigue. They’re not flirting with the enigmatic Kyrie Irving. They’re not involved in the Lillard or Harden sweepstakes, unlike the Clippers down the hall. Not bleeding, not leading.

    There’s little uncertainty and only marginal debate: Rather than agree to deals with former Miami Heat guard Gabe Vincent and Minnesota forward Taurean Prince, might the Lakers have done better to retain Mo Bamba and Malik Beasley and their combined $26.8 million in expiring contracts to retain more flexibility later? Possibly, yes.

    But also: Last season’s late pickups propelled the Lakers so far forward, maybe there’s a reasonable benefit of the doubt available for the front office’s evaluations and calculations on Vincent and Prince – as well as small forward Cam Reddish and center Jaxson Hayes, and whoever the third center winds up being?

    That could be Bamba, the 25-year-old with much to prove still, whom the Lakers waived (along with this $10.3 million contract) on the eve of free agency. Or it could be 12-year veteran Tristan Thompson, an enthusiastic cheerleader and potential wild card to throw at the Joker, who is also friends with LeBron James.

    James, apparently, has stayed out of these decisions. But, importantly, he seemed to weigh in with a series of Instagram story photos, a sequence starring the guys coming back and coming in – no needle-moving superstars among them, no one expected to alter the Lakers’ course either. Because when you have momentum on your side, who would want that?

    The Lakers might not be one of the hot free agency stories this summer, but that could spell out a better ending next year.

    — Dave McMenamin (@mcten) July 1, 2023

    ​ Orange County Register