Take a deep breath, Lakers fans, because Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are not taking LeBron James signing a four-year contract as a sign to take to take their time finding that second superstar to play Robin to LeBron’s Batman.
Instead, the Lakers are diligently working on several fronts in an all-out effort to acquire another superstar in time to give them a shot at competing for an NBA championship this year. Magic and Rob have done a masterful job luring LeBron to sign as a free agent and have perfectly positioned the Lakers with the budding young talent and complement of draft picks they’ll need to land multiple superstars via trade this midseason or free agency this summer.
That means the lineup the Lakers will take the court with once the playoffs start could look dramatically different that the team they could field today. With a portfolio of young stars like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart, the Lakers have the necessary trading chips to upgrade their roster and give LeBron a second or third superstar like Kawhi Leonard or Damian Lillard either this summer or before the midseason trade deadline.
Neither the Warriors’ domination and signing of All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins for $5.3 million or LeBron James’ four-year contract are going to deter the Lakers from trying to challenge for an NBA championship this year. With a better supporting cast than Bron had with the Cavs, the Lakers genuinely believe the addition LeBron James alone elevates them a top four status in the league behind only the Warriors, Rockets, Celtics, and 76ers.
The Lakers are not yet done making deals this summer and their most likely target is the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard, who wants to be traded to the Lakers and whose camp has advised he’ll sit out the season if the Spurs don’t relent and won’t re-sign with any another team if traded. The Spurs have given up trying to change Kawhi’s mind and realize there’s no way they can bring him back at this point so there’s an urgent need to trade him before the season starts.
The Lakers so far have not yet made any substantive trade offer for Kawhi. The Spurs are reportedly asking for Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, two future first round picks, and two future first round pick swaps for Kawhi. That’s a ridiculous offer the Lakers wouldn’t accept but it’s easy to see where the negotiations are likely to go, with the Lakers eventually offering Ingram, Hart, and a first round pick while the Spurs demand both Ingram and Kuzma.
With the close of free agency looming and neither Boston or Philadelphia appearing to have serious interest in giving up much for a one-year rental of Kawhi, the Spurs are faced with a tough decision and may be forced to accept Ingram, Hart, and a pick as the best they could get under the circumstances. If the Spurs won’t budge, then the Lakers will continue signing players to short term deals this summer to free cap space to sign Kawhi next summer.
In the end, the Spurs will have no choice but to accept the deal the Lakers are offering. While Ingram, Hart, and a first round pick are not great value for a superstar of Kawhi Leonard’s stature, the Spurs need to realize that they’re getting a lot more for Kawhi than the Pacers received for Paul George or the Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. Frankly, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart are both perfect talented young players to plug right into Pop’s San Antonio’s system.
Trading for Kawhi Leonard would give the Lakers a second top-five superstar to pair with LeBron James and a giant first step towards building a team that would be a legitimate serious threat to take down the Golden State Warriors.
The next step in transforming the Lakers’ roster into one that could compete with the Warriors would be to trade the rest of the Lakers’ young core to acquire a third superstar to play with LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. Reports have surfaced that the Lakers have been kicking tires on deals with teams like the Blazers, Wizards, and Timberwolves, who may be looking to move a superstar for young stars and picks as part of a rebuilding process.
The one potential deal that I think the Lakers should seriously consider is trading Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Luol Deng, and a first round pick to the Blazers for Damian Lillard. After a first round blowout in the playoffs, the Blazers know they’re not going to win with a Lillard/McCollum backcourt and appear to be ready to change direction. Swapping Damian Lillard for Lonzo and Kuzma would give the Blazers a great way to quickly rebuild.
While they would have to absorb Luol Deng’s contact, the Blazers would be getting two terrific young players in Ball and Kuzma around whom to rebuild along with C.J. McCollum, Jusuf Jurkic, and Myers Leonard. Lonzo would give them an elite defender with a transcendent playmaking style that would change the dynamic of the franchise and Kuzma would give them an exciting and explosive offensive scoring juggernaut to win the hearts of Dame’s fans.
Meanwhile, Dame would immediately replace Lonzo as the Lakers’ starting point guard, giving them the ideal superstar point guard whose elite shooting and playmaking would be a perfect fit to play Kyrie Irving for LeBron James. Getting two budding young stars with All-Star potential plus a first round pick for Lillard is worth absorbing the last two years of Luol Deng’s contract. It’s one of those special trades that could end up being wins for both sides.
The beauty of the proposed Damian Lillard trade is that it can be executed by itself or in conjunction with the proposed Kawhi Leonard trade to enable the Lakers to roll out a championship caliber starting lineup with Damian Lillard, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Lebron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Brook Lopez that’s backed by a deep, dynamic, and versatile bench featuring Rajon Rondo, Svi Mykhailiuk, Lance Stephenson, Moritz Wagner, and JaVale McGee.
The NBA is entering an era where the league’s top general managers and superstars are trying to put together superteams. If the Lakers can pull off these deals, they’d have a superteam that could beat the Warriors this year.
While signing Boogie could conceivably make the Warriors invincible, it’s important to remember the Lakers turned down an opportunity to sign Cousins for essentially the identical deal as he accepted with the Warriors. The Lakers supposedly passed due to concerns Boogie might not fully recover or be ready in time to help them and worries his reputation for not working hard and rehab struggles could become a negative force in the locker room.
Since the Warriors signed Boogie for their $5.3 million midlevel exception, he’s basically a one-year rental because there’s no way they will be able to keep him after this year as they would be limited to giving him a 2% raise. That means they’re betting on him being ready to play early next year and hoping he will recover fully and be ready to play soon enough for the team to integrate him into their system and become a force for them in the playoffs.
The reality is it’s not a slam dunk that Cousins helps the Dubs in the end. There are real questions as to when he would be ready to play and whether he would be anywhere near the same player as before once he came back. The Warriors obviously believe they have the kind of coach and locker room that can handle Boogie but only time will tell. Frankly, Boogie is a risk that a team in the Warriors’ position does not need to take and may regret taking.
There’s a long way to go until next summer’ playoffs and road will be filled with opportunities. The Lakers aren’t done team building and the team they build for the playoffs could challenge the Warriors for a championship