Lakers young core confident in progress as LeBron-PG pursuit looms in intriguing offseason
A big summer looms for the Lakers with plenty of questions heading into another intriguing offseason. AP

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — And now the real season begins for the Los Angeles Lakers.

At least that’s what the fans of the 16-time NBA champions repeatedly have been told while Los Angeles missed the playoffs and finished with a losing record for the fifth consecutive year.

Ever since they took over the Lakers’ basketball operations a year ago, Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka have founded their rebuilding project around the acquisition of one or two elite free agents this summer — or next summer, they’ve recently amended.

Magic firmly believes the Lakers’ championship pedigree, glamorous location and salary cap room for two enormous contracts can attract superstars near the primes of their careers to lift one of the NBA’s cornerstone franchises back to its accustomed heights. The Lakers had only missed the playoffs five previous times in their first 65 years of existence before they doubled that number during this dismal half-decade.

But while the pursuit of Paul George and LeBron James constantly loomed on the horizon, the Lakers’ day-to-day development over the past season has been downright intriguing. For all their talk of the Lakers’ irresistible lure, Johnson and Pelinka knew they probably couldn’t attract free-agent stars without an attractive young core, and the last six months suggested they have it.

“If guys want to come here, they come,” rookie Kyle Kuzma said Thursday (Friday, Manila time) after his exit interview with team brass. “But if not, we’re not depending on that. We want to be those great players, those max-level guys. We just think about, ‘How can we make the team better?’”

Rookies Lonzo Ball, Kuzma and Josh Hart all showed clear NBA ability, while youngsters Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle continued their development into above-average pros. Los Angeles’ 35-47 record and 11th-place conference finish in the just-completed season are its best performances by a considerable margin during this woeful five-year stretch.

The Lakers aren’t good yet, but the guys who are already in purple and gold could be key pieces in a very good team.

Here are more things to watch during another long offseason in LA:

PG SWEEPSTAKES

The Lakers are expected to put a full-court press on George, the Oklahoma City Thunder star who grew up idolizing Kobe Bryant in Palmdale, just north of Los Angeles. Even if James decides to stay home in Cleveland instead of becoming a dual-threat Hollywood mogul, the addition of George’s 20-plus points per night almost certainly would make the Lakers very entertaining in coach Luke Walton’s up-tempo system this fall. If George decides to play for a franchise closer to a championship, the Lakers will undoubtedly spin the narrative to the summer of 2019, when another bumper crop of free agents will be on the market.

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RANDLE’S FUTURE

Randle’s improvement was among the Lakers’ most impressive developments of the season. The formerly inconsistent power forward played in all 82 games, averaging 16.1 points and 8.0 rebounds and emerging as a dependable two-way player. Randle is a free agent this summer after the Lakers decided not to lock him down with a contract extension last year, but Randle’s outstanding year has greatly increased the chances of a long-term deal in LA. “As far as the summer, who knows what will happen?” Randle said. “I’ve never done this before. All I know is it’s going to be a longer summer than I want it to be, with us not being in the playoffs. I think it’s exciting for me, though.”

FREE AGENCY

The Lakers’ desire for plenty of cap room this summer means they’ve got four talented veterans with expiring contracts: Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye. Lopez had a strong debut season with his hometown team, which won’t be able to afford him unless it comes up empty with the top-shelf free agents. Caldwell-Pope also seems likely to leave, while the market for Thomas’ skills is unpredictable after his injury-plagued year ended with hip surgery. If Thomas doesn’t attract a big offer, he seems amenable to a return to LA — as does Frye, a dependable veteran backup.

BALL GAME

After showing incredible basketball intelligence and a distressingly inconsistent shot, Ball said he is headed into “pretty much the biggest summer of my life.” The UCLA product with the opinionated parent understands the weaknesses in his game, and he seems determined to address his offensive flaws while building his overall strength. If Ball takes significant strides as a scorer, he would quickly become one of the NBA’s most dynamic young guards with his preternatural court vision and rebounding ability.

LUKE’S FUTURE

Walton seems extremely likely to return for a third season after his Lakers made a nine-game improvement on last year’s performance. Johnson and owner Jeanie Buss continue to speak glowingly of the young coach, and Walton doesn’t seem satisfied by the Lakers’ incremental improvements. “We know this is a team that’s supposed to be in the playoffs and to contend for championships, and that’s the goal we’re all trying to reach every day,” Walton said.

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