The one kernel of certainty in the ‘’LeBron to the Lakers’ speculation is LeBron James is not going to sign with the Lakers as a free agent unless he genuinely believes it will give him his best possible chance win an NBA championship.
Thus, the big question the Lakers have to ask themselves as they prepare for free agency is: Do LeBron and Paul George make the Lakers a true contender? Unless the answer to that question is a yes, the Lakers would be better off to focus instead on signing Paul George and accept that LeBron isn’t coming. That’s an assessment the Lakers should make right now because the answer could affect what they do in the draft and how they approach free agency.
Even more importantly, it’s an assessment that could dramatically alter the short and long term future of the Lakers. Signing LeBron James and Paul George would commit the Lakers to an unforgiving ‘win now’ mentality that inevitably could lead to trading all but two or three of their young core for that elusive third superstar they’ll need if they hope to match the Rockets and Warriors and legitimately compete for an NBA championship next season.
While the Lakers would be a playoff team with LeBron and PG, the truth is they wouldn’t have the talent or experience to beat the Warriors or Rockets. That means they need to find a third superstar if they want to sign LeBron.
That challenge is further exacerbated because the Lakers almost need to have the trade for that third superstar already lined up to get LeBron to commit otherwise he could pass rather than gamble on Magic later making a deal. That means the free agent battle for LeBron James this summer could become a competition between the Lakers’ Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka and the Rockets’ Daryl Morey to pull off the front office deals needed to land LeBron.
The player most likely to be traded to bring in a third Lakers superstar would be Brandon Ingram, who plays the same position as LeBron and Paul George. A trade of Brandon Ingram and other assets for Kawhi Leonard could make sense if the Spurs’ plans to re-sign Kawhi to a 5-year supermax contract don’t come through. If the Spurs are forced to trade Leonard, there’s not a better young superstar prospect around than the long and skilled Brandon Ingram.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, there just aren’t many NBA players available right now that could fill the role of being the third superstar the Lakers need. The Spurs are reportedly looking to sign Kawhi to a 5-year supermax deal. There were rumblings that Karl-Anthony Towns or Jimmy Butler might be available but nothing that could be counted on. Bottom line, the Lakers might have to wait for the trade deadline next season to find another superstar.
The best possible option the Lakers might consider is a sign-and-trade deal with the New Orleans Pelicans for polarizing but injured center DeMarcus Cousins. Instead of getting nothing in return if Boogie leaves as a free agent, the Pelicans might agree to sign-and-trade him to the Lakers. The Pels could sign Boogie to 4-years starting at $24 million and trade him to the Lakers for a package of Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Luol Deng, and a first round pick.
The trade could appeal to the Pelicans because, instead of losing Boogie for nothing, they end up getting two budding young stars in Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart and a first rounder for taking on the last two years of Deng’s deal. That’s a trade that could have great appeal to the cap locked Pelicans because it would give them the infusion of elite young talent they need to be able to grow the team and keep Anthony Davis from fleeing in free agency in 2020.
For the Lakers, getting DeMarcus Cousins in a sign-and-trade would give the Lakers the third superstar along with LeBron and PG they need to contend with the Warriors and Rockets. A starting lineup of Lonzo Ball, Paul George, LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma, and DeMarcus Cousins would have tantalizing upside with possibly the best player in the league at three different positions plus two young stars with impressive upsides in Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma.
For Cousins, the 4-year deal would provide him with the security he needs considering his injury and the opportunity to play with other great players and compete for an NBA championship, something that’s eluded him his entire professional career. While they would need to rebuild their bench, a Lakers lineup of Lonzo Ball, Paul George, LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma, and DeMarcus Cousins might be the right fivesome to take down the Warriors.
LeBron James and Paul George will make the Lakers a tough playoff team in the West but they’re going to need a third superstar like Kawhi Leonard or DeMarcus Cousins to convince LeBron James they’re a legitimate contender. The Lakers should be working the back channels right now to try and line up a deal for that third superstar so that when July 1st arrives, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka will have the bullets they need to land LeBron James.
The Lakers’ competitors for LeBron’s services are expected to be the Houston Rockets and the Philadelphia 76ers. There are rumors LeBron might meet with the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics but those seem like long shots right now. The 76ers are the only other competing team that has the cap space to sign LeBron as a free agent. Houston, Golden State, and Boston would have to agree to a sign-and-trade deals in order to acquire LeBron.
The Rockets with CP3 are probably the favorites from LeBron’s point of view as he’s long wanted to play with Chris and the Rockets might have knocked off the Warriors in the Conference Finals if not for his injury. The big problem is the Rockets have no cap space and would have to move bad contracts or get the Cavs and LeBron to agree to a sign-and-trade, all of which are long shots. The Rockets may be LeBron’s first choice but even Morey can’t pull this off.
The 76ers, on the other hand, don’t need to do a sign-and-trade as they have the cap space to sign LeBron as a free agent. While the 76ers are concerned whether LeBron’s a good fit with the team and whether taking the ball out of Ben Simmons’ hands will hurt his development, adding LeBron would make the young Sixers the odds on favorites to win the East. LeBron, on the other hand, is concerned whether 76ers management would pay the taxes to win.
While the 76ers with LeBron might not have enough firepower to dethrone the Warriors, they’d definitely be the odds on favorites to win the East with budding superstars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. And they would have the added benefit of having an easier path to the Finals being in the East. That’s why many basketball experts think LeBron is destined to join the 76ers and stay in the East. They have the cap space plus two young stud superstars.
The problem is neither LeBron or the 76ers appear to be excited about the possibility of Philadelphia being the King’s next destination. LeBron needs the ball and to be surrounded by shooters and the 76ers want Simmons and Embiid to have the ball and LeBron takes up a slot that could be used by a shooter. The situation is further complicated by the recent firing of Brian Colangelo, who became involved in a scandal over Twitter burner accounts.
In the end, I think the Lakers will emerge as the best potential landing spot for LeBron James. Even if they can’t immediately pull of a trade for a third superstar to go with LeBron and PG, LeBron knows for sure that the Lakers have the will and portfolio of tradable assets to make such a trade whenever the opportunities present themselves. I also think the Lakers would require LeBron to sign a 3-year contract rather than a series of short term deals.
Part of the pitch to LeBron is that joining the Lakers a long term deal with the Lakers is the best way to take the workload and pressure off his shoulders to be and do everything for the franchise. He no longer will have to worry about the being the team’s coach and general manager once he’s part of the Lakers. Instead, he can focus on the one thing that’s most important to him: helping his team win games on the court and competing for an NBA championship.
Do LeBron and PG make the Lakers contenders? Not by themselves. But they do have the blue chip assets needed to trade for Kawhi Leonard or DeMarcus Cousins as the third superstar they need to be a legitimate title contender.