Corbin Smith The Toronto Raptors are in the NBA Finals, and the L.A. Lakers are not — for a reason

The Raptors are facing the Warriors because of bold moves. In contrast, Lakers' owner Jeanie Buss made loyalty and personal connections a priority.
Image: 2019 NBA Finals - Game One
Pascal Siakam of the Toronto Raptors attempts a lay up against the Golden State Warriors in the first game of the 2019 NBA Finals in Toronto.Gregory Shamus / Getty Images
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By Corbin Smith

The Toronto Raptors’ slam-dunk success this season — which they have ridden all the way to this year’s NBA finals against the Golden State Warriors— should put every team on notice, but one team in particular: the L.A. Lakers.

The Lakers, of course, weren’t even close to making it to the playoffs, let alone the finals, and that’s the point. For every tired and inside-the-box choice L.A. made, the Raptors went the other way. Their daring, in particular a willingness to jettison fan favorites, has gotten them to where they are.

And the Lakers' abysmal season, riddled with embarrassing losses and humiliating off-the-court coverage, shows the limits of placing personal connections and name recognition above all else.

The Lakers' abysmal season, riddled with embarrassing losses and humiliating off-the-court coverage, shows the limits of placing personal connections and name recognition above all else.

The Raptors’ road to the Finals was paved with uncertainty and risk.

General Manager Masai Ujiri, one of the league’s top-shelf front-office executives, traversed it with decisiveness and guts. A lot of other NBA front offices would have been scared to take his approach, fretting for their jobs if such bold moves didn’t work out and lounging in the comfort of a familiar team with moderate success. But Ujiri was unconcerned with comfort. After several high-profile playoff flameouts, he wanted to win a title.

To do so, he began by remaking the team in the off-season.

He traded guard DeMar DeRozan, a talented wing who had been on the team for years, for a Spurs forward, Kawhi Leonard, coming off a season in which he didn’t play and his relationship with his team was marked by back-channel media mudslinging. Though Leonard is certainly one of the league’s top players, with a 2014 NBA Finals MVP designation to prove it, he also came with a truncated contract that gave him only a year in Toronto before his free agency began.

Acquiring Leonard was the biggest splash Ujiri could have made given the players available, but he didn’t stand pat. When the 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year, Marc Gasol, became available, he shipped out longtime Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas without even blinking.

Uriji’s fearlessness has been rewarded with a trip to the NBA Finals, the first in franchise history. The team is now facing a Golden States Warriors squad missing Kevin Durant, and it wasted no time taking advantage of his absence in the best-of-seven series, winning the opening game Thursday, 118-109.

In contrast, the Lakers’ tumultuous 2018-19 season saw the team go 37-45 — even after adding LeBron James — miss the playoffs and find themselves waterlogged in a river of bad press and bad vibes. The cause of all this chaos wasn’t the Lakers' taking risks that didn’t pay off. It was the propensity of team owner Jeanie Buss, who has been involved in running the team since her father was owner, to hunker down and only trust people and situations she is familiar with, even as she gets punished for it, time and again.

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Ever since their 2011 playoffs loss, the Lakers have mostly tried to win by looking backward. They made providing megastar Kobe Bryant with late-career comfort a priority, invested in big men whose skills didn’t serve the league’s reorientation toward three-point shooting, and failed to update their analytical or training approaches in the slightest.

After spending several years lost in the wilderness, the Lakers finally fired longtime GM Mitch Kupchak two off-seasons ago.

That gave Buss the opportunity to take a gamble on some outside front office talent to modernize the franchise. Instead, she hired Lakers' legend Magic Johnson to be the team’s president and Rob Pelinka, Kobe Bryant’s longtime agent and only reported friend, to run basketball operations. (Even the outside coaching hire she made, former Warriors assistant Luke Walton, was a longtime former Laker.) Never mind that neither Johnson nor Pelinka had any experience staffing or executing the priorities of an NBA franchise — they had been associated with the Lakers for an eternity, and Jeanie felt comfortable with them.

It didn’t work, of course. Johnson, a chef with lots of pots boiling at any given time, was in and out. He mostly showed up to work to berate underlings and get the Lakers tampering violations, according to an exhaustive investigation by ESPN. He eventually quit because, he told the media in a wild, jaw-dropping press conference in April, he was totally miserable and would prefer to limit his relationship with the NBA to firing off complimentary tweets about NBA players instead.

Over the Lakers' long off-season, Jeanie Buss has time to consider taking the bold steps her organization really needs.

Pelinka was even stranger: He didn’t really feel it necessary to consult his scouting staff when running drafts or making decisions about free agency, according to ESPN’s reporting, and constantly showed up at pregame and halftime meetings — a faux pas that made players feel like they were constantly being evaluated for possible trades. He is also, well, a sports agent, not a GM. His relationships around the league are tainted by a career spent advocating for clients at any cost, a skill set that doesn’t really include scouting and the tedium of maintaining a clean salary cap.

When Pelinka and Johnson had the opportunity to sign LeBron James in the 2018 offseason, they took it, which arguably made sense. But James, like Bryant before, has run roughshod over everyone in the organization, who apparently are all too scared of his monumental clout to tell him to stop.

The pair then sowed distrust among the rest of the roster by floating nearly every other player for a possible trade in pursuit of Pelicans forward Anthony Davis, who shares an agent with James. They traded D’Angelo Russell, presumably to give his time to Lonzo Ball, only to sit and watch as Russell made an all-star squad with the Brooklyn Nets. And their free agent acquisitions were … weird, valuing Rajon Rondo-type name recognition over surrounding James with complementary talent.

Over the Lakers' long off-season, Buss has time to consider taking the bold steps her organization really needs. They might be scary, but look at where it’s gotten the Raptors: just three wins away from the NBA championship.