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Will the LeBron James-Anthony Davis axis turn the Lakers from losers to champs?

Hunter Felt
Photograph: Andrew D Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors hadn’t even made it back to Canada to celebrate their championship before their moment in the spotlight ended. On Saturday, the Los Angeles Lakers sent shockwaves throughout the NBA with a trade that sent Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and three first-round picks to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for one of the best players in the league, Anthony Davis. The Lakers were once again at the center of the basketball world and, for the first time in a while, it was because they actually did something positive.

Up until this weekend 2019 had not been going swimmingly for the Lakers, who were last seen flaming out of the regular season with a 37-45 record, missing the playoffs for the sixth straight season. It also marked the first time since 2005 that the newly arrived LeBron James had missed the playoffs. Shortly thereafter, franchise icon Magic Johnson resigned as team president and the Lakers parted ways with head coach Luke Walton (who was later accused of sexual assault).

Related: New Orleans Pelicans trade Anthony Davis to LA Lakers in blockbuster deal

As bad as it looked on the surface, things might have been even more dysfunctional behind the scenes. Just a few weeks ago, ESPN’s Baxter Holmes released a bombshell story that made the team the laughing stock of the league. The piece’s most enduring scene featured Lakers GM Rob Pelinka telling an absurd anecdote about Kobe Bryant having dinner with actor Heath Ledger after the Lakers guard had watched his performance in the film The Dark Knight. Ledger, as most will recall, died well before the film’s release.

Holmes’s article highlighted the defining moment of the 2018-19 season as when the Lakers failed to strike a deal for Davis at the February trade deadline. Both Davis and James are represented by the same agent, Rich Paul, who is portrayed throughout the article as someone with an inordinate amount of influence on personnel decisions within the Lakers. After talks between the Lakers and Pelicans collapsed in February, the younger players who were being discussed as being part of the deal seemed to lose confidence and the team’s on-court performance plummeted. From an outside perspective it looked like the Lakers were in free fall, power struggles within the organization were tearing the team apart and that dark days were ahead.

And yet this story apparently has an upbeat ending. The Lakers successfully trading for Davis this weekend completely changes the narrative that had been building over the course of months of bad basketball and worse optics. With the notable exception of Kyle Kuzma, most of those unhappy young players are now with the Pelicans. The Lakers have a 26-year-old MVP caliber player who is the perfect complement to LeBron, and could end up being the face of the franchise when James leaves. Rich Paul has won.

OK, perhaps it’s too early for the Lakers to run a victory lap. They still have to build a roster around the pair. They have the room to add another big name free agent –already there’s talk about the Charlotte Hornets’ Kemba Walker or even NBA finals MVP Kawhi Leonard – and the Western Conference looks to be wide open considering the unfortunate injuries to the Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, who are likely to miss large parts – if not all – of next season.

Also, it needs to be emphasized that the Lakers are still taking a huge risk. The Pelicans will receive the No4 pick in this week’s upcoming draft, a top-eight protected pick in 2021, an unprotected pick in 2024 and the right to swap picks with LA in both 2023 and 2025. There’s no doubt that that they have gotten the best possible package they could get from LA who have essentially mortgaged their entire future for Davis who is not obliged to re-sign with the Lakers when his contract runs out next year (as incredibly unlikely as that seems now).

So, yes, Lakers haters, in the long run, there’s a chance this could destroy the team’s fortunes. After all, in the past there have been impressive-on-paper Lakers teams that have crumbled as soon as they were assembled. It’s hard to forget the legacy of the Kobe Bryant/Dwight Howard/Steve Nash would-be superteam.

The Lakers didn’t really have much of a choice, of course. They had to stop the playoff drought, not to mention the public ridicule, and make sure that they weren’t wasting the last years of LeBron’s prime. James has four more seasons left on his deal with the Lakers and will be 38 when his contract ends. The Lakers were in desperate need for a Kyrie Irving or Dwyane Wade figure if they wanted to win a championship with the league’s greatest player and Davis, a versatile big man, is the ideal player to suit up next to him.

And, really, what are exactly the risks here for the Lakers? Sure, they pulled the plug on an entire youth movement and sacrificed a hoard of draft picks, but when was the last time that LA seriously had to worry about such things? These are the Lakers, they don’t operate under the same rules as the other teams in the league: they believe that star players will always come to them because, well, that’s what they always do. Because of their long history of winning – and they fact that they exist right at the heart of the entertainment industry – the Lakers rightfully believe they will always have an inherent advantage on their competitors no matter how incompetently they are run.

Maybe they really are America’s team.