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This was the moment of truth for the Lakers, and they nailed it

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They couldn’t strike out in free agency again, not after investing so many eggs in this summer’s basket. And they didn’t.

2018 NBA Draft Combine - Day 1 Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on June 25 and update six days later after LeBron James announced he would sign with the Lakers.

You need to understand just how humongous the last three weeks were for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Coming off the longest playoff drought in the franchise’s glorious history, the Lakers had an opportunity to completely remake their team. Los Angeles, with all-new management and the salary cap space to absorb multiple stars, was set up to not just climb out of the basement, but to launch the team back into NBA title contention for the first time since 2010. After five moribund years — something inconceivable for this franchise until it actually happened — it’s all over in six days.

LeBron James is a Laker, and Kawhi Leonard might not be far behind. The Lakers’ dry spell did not continue.

This was the most fascinating story in the NBA as we entered what was expected to be a rollicking offseason. The Lakers were at the center of the biggest free agent storylines — those tied to LeBron, of course, but also Paul George (who stayed in OKC), and even DeMarcus Cousins, and even Kevin Durant for a fleeting second before he returned to Golden State — and have plenty of assets to flip in the trade market if stars are available.

And there was always reason to believe that things would be different than they were when the Lakers struck out in free agency in the recent past.

The Lakers are one of the two most decorated franchises in NBA history, along with their rival Boston Celtics. (Those Celtics are, in case you missed it, in prime position to compete for titles for the foreseeable future.) Until recently, the Lakers had never missed the NBA playoffs more than two years in a row, and they’d only done that once in the mid-1970s.

L.A. has now been out of the playoffs for five straight years as the twilight of Kobe Bryant’s career slid up against a multi-year rebuild effort and a series of free agent whiffs. Since winning back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010, the Lakers have won all of two playoff series and are on their sixth coach (counting short-termer Bernie Bickerstaff). It’s been a wholly inglorious transition from superpower to, essentially, the Kings South.

So why should we have believed things would be all-of-a-sudden different? Because of Magic.

Well, because of Magic Johnson and Jeanie Buss. The Lakers’ coup of 2017 seems like ancient history, but it was just 15 months or so ago that Jim Buss, who had been running basketball operations with longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak, was pushed out as Jim attempted to seize full control of the franchise from his sister. Kupchak is now making questionable deals involving Timofey Mozgov over in Charlotte, and Jim Buss is ... well, no one really knows. (Frankly, no one seemed to know where he was when he ostensibly ran the Lakers, either.)

Jeanie Buss hired Magic Johnson to oversee the front office, and Magic replaced Kupchak with Rob Pelinka, best known as the Rob Lowe lookalike who represented Kobe all those years. Magic isn’t just the greatest Laker ever. He’s also a hugely successful businessman, with the personality and brains to make things happen.

And make things happen he did. With LeBron in tow, Magic finally has an opportunity to return his beloved Lakers to glory.

Keep in mind too why Magic jettisoned Kupchak, who he’d inherited: Kupchak’s front office struck out on trading for Cousins despite having far more assets than the Pelicans. The inability to bring a star to L.A. roiled Magic, who then replaced Kupchak with Pelinka as Jim Buss’ embarrassing boardroom coup attempt failed.

Magic, Jeanie, and Pelinka started chasing stars immediately, attempting to trade for Paul George around the time of the 2017 NBA Draft. They even picked up tampering charges for their troubles. (There is nothing the Lakers under Magic love more than tampering charges.) They missed out on PG-13, and Jimmy Butler, and Kyrie Irving. In the end, 2017 was a prelude as the franchise got settled and built a blueprint for 2018, when LeBron James would be a free agent.

Now we’re here. LeBron is a Laker. George is in OKC, but Leonard wants to go to the Lakers and good ol’ Cousins is still available. This is another reason these next three weeks are so important: there are a lot of potential prizes for the Lakers to win.

There’s also the matter of Kawhi’s 2019 free agency, if he goes elsewhere this time around. If the Lakers don’t sign anyone else of consequence to join LeBron, there’s still hope the team can add Kawhi in a year — if not sooner — to push them up the standings into real contention.

2018 NBA Draft Combine - Day 1 Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

But the real imperative for the Lakers to land a star this summer was that the pure mystique of the new power structure depended on it. Had L.A. struck out under Magic, Jeanie, and Pelinka just as it struck out under Jim Buss and Kupchak, the mystique would have be gone. Lakers exceptionalism would have remain dormant. The L.A. faithful would have wonder if the Lakers are truly, finally a normal franchise now.

Magic especially derives much of his power in this realm from his force of personality and magnetism. If that had proven to be empty this offseason, it would have been difficult to convince anyone it exists in a year. Will Kawhi, Kyrie Irving, or any other 2019 free agent have been drawn to a franchise that strikes out at every chance, a team without legitimate stars?

That was what is at stake for the Lakers this summer. And based on the Lakers’ centrality in NBA history, what’s at stake for the Lakers is at stake for the league.

But with LeBron going to L.A., we now know the truth. The Lakers will rise again.