It’s only fitting that Magic Johnson is at the helm, because it’s showtime for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Only this fast break doesn’t have Michael Cooper and James Worthy running the wings with Byron Scott spotting up behind the 3-point arc — this one has Kawhi Leonard trying to flee San Antonio, a homesick Paul George looking to play for his childhood team, and the megalodon of all big fish, LeBron James, looking to produce the climactic final act to his legendary career.
The Lakers and their fans have been eagerly awaiting this moment for five years, crouched and wiggling like a lioness hiding in the brush, waiting for the unsuspecting free agent antelopes to drop their guard for a split-second.
With Leonard finally declaring his intent to leave the Spurs after months of turmoil and confusion, the dominoes have all fallen into place for the Lakers to finally build the star-laden superteam they’ve craved. Now the pressure is on Johnson, who’s been the Lakers’ president of basketball operations for all of 16 months, general manager Rob Pelinka and the entire Lakers front office to make it a reality.
Through the years of late-Kobe and post-Kobe futility, the Lakers have preached patience. Eventually, the thinking went, they’d snare a big free agent or two with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, the winning tradition and the proud history of a storied franchise. It’s happened in the past and it will happen again, they said.
Well, the time for the Lakers front office is now. No more waiting. No more patience from the fans. Now.
Johnson and Pelinka already laid the groundwork by clearing the poisonous contracts of the previous regime such as Timofey Mozgov and Jordan Clarkson, leaving them with enough cap space for two max contracts this summer. LeBron and George were always the targets, but now that Leonard has reportedly asked out of San Antonio, a true superteam, one that can legitimately contend with the Warriors, is an attainable reality.
A starting lineup featuring LeBron, Kawhi and PG would take the modern NBA penchant for versatile, playmaking two-way wings to its inevitable zenith: All three players can handle the ball, shoot 3-pointers, switch on defense and finish in transition. And while James’ intentionally minimal effort on the defensive end has been noted, there’s no better cover than arguably the two best perimeter defenders in the entire world by his side.
LeBron would be free to get back to his facilitator roots after shouldering a load no 33-year-old should be forced to shoulder in the Cavaliers’ miraculous, yet ultimately disappointing, most recent Finals run. He would allow Leonard and George to seamlessly alternate between isolations, spot-ups and slashing — positionless basketball in the truest sense.
The Lakers’ title odds have already jumped to 6-1 after the Leonard news broke, and they might even eclipse Golden State as favorites if Los Angeles is able to pull off the massive coup.
But it’s not as easy as it sounds – it never is, and it certainly hasn’t been for the Lakers in recent years. They’re in the race, but there are others vying for the crown jewels of the offseason feeding frenzy as well, and the waters will be rough.
LeBron and George aren’t even close to sure things, despite all the chatter indicating otherwise. And even if the Lakers are able to convince them through elaborate pitches punctuated by Magic’s ear-to-ear, beaming grin, getting their third star could prove problematic.
First, there’s the very real possibility that the Spurs simply refuse to trade Leonard. Gregg Popovich admitted last season that LaMarcus Aldridge had previously asked for a trade, but rather than rush to deal the All-Star, Popovich and his crew talked Aldridge into staying. Add to that the utter disaster that befell the Cleveland Cavaliers following their decision to trade Kyrie Irving for Isaiah Thomas, Larry Nance Jr., the aforementioned Clarkson and what amounted to the No. 8 overall pick in next week’s daft, and it might be enough to convince the Spurs to press their luck, hoping that Leonard will change his mind.
More on Kawhi
If the Spurs are willing to trade him, however, the Lakers would have to include the final two years and $36.8 million of Luol Deng’s contract, a gargantuan albatross in a league chocked full of gargantuan albatrosses following the now-infamous salary-cap boom of 2016. They would presumably attach one or two of their budding stars – Brandon Ingram makes sense given his upside and the bounty of forwards the Lakers would possess with LeBron, George and Leonard – and hope that would be enough to entice the Spurs to take on Deng.
Here’s the problem: Though Leonard reportedly prefers the Lakers as a destination, the Spurs have no obligation to send him there. If they truly are going to deal their franchise player, they’re going to take the most attractive package, regardless of Leonard’s desires.
The Sacramento Kings are interested, with their No. 2 pick in next Thursday’s draft dangling as bait, but the real competition for the Lakers comes from, drumroll please … the dreaded Boston Celtics. Could this have gone any other way?
Dany Ainge and Co. have been eyeing Leonard for a while now, reportedly inquiring about him around February’s trade deadline, and they’re in the enviable position of having the right pieces to put together a tempting deal for San Antonio. You’d think that Jayson Tatum is as untouchable as it gets for Boston, but Jaylen Brown is a young, talented, two-way player in the Kawhi mold who could usher in a new era of Spurs basketball. Throw in Terry Rozier and a future pick (yes, the Celtics still have some attractive options), and the race for Kawhi could be Boston’s to lose.
So it looks like Magic, who defeated the Celtics twice in the NBA Finals, could have to best his rivals once again – this time as a front-office executive. The franchise-changing pieces are just out of reach, and the legacy of Magic Johnson as a front-office leader hangs in the balance.
It’s going to be a smoldering summer in Los Angeles, one way or another.