The biggest decision facing the Lakers’ management this summer in my opinion will be whether Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma will be the future stars or just role players on the Lakers’ next championship team.
That’s a decision the Lakers can’t just leave to chance because they’re only going to get one shot at getting it right. They cannot afford another Timofey Mozgov or Luol Deng. Or worse, another Dwight Howard or Steve Nash. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have made it clear the Lakers “aren’t going to sign somebody just to say they signed somebody” but that’s not the same thing as saying they’re going to build around Ball, Ingram, and Kuma.
After five miserable years of uncertainty and misdirection, the Lakers have finally established an identity, style of play, and direction lead by a dynamic coach in Luke Walton and trio of budding stars in Ball, Ingram, and Kuzma. They should be careful this summer to pursue the ‘right’ superstars, meaning players who will be good fits and complement and accelerate the growth of their young stars rather than slowing down or limiting their development.
Who are the ‘right’ superstars for the Lakers to pursue? The ‘right’ superstars are those whose age, position, or style of play would not hinder or limit the growth and development of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, or Kyle Kuzma? Does it make good sense to sign a free agent point guard or ball dominant player who would take the ball away from Lonzo Ball? Or how about a small forward when it’s the only position Brandon Ingram can play at this point?
To me, the ‘right’ superstar would share a championship window with our current young core and would not require the Lakers to trade, bench, or play one of their young stars out-of-position to accommodate him, which means he would have to be capable of being the starting shooting guard or center. He would also be a team first player who could score and defend, play with and without the basketball, and attack the rim and shoot the three well.
What we always need to remember is that best superstar is not necessarily the ‘right’ superstar because of age, position, skillset, need for the ball, style of play, personality, and fit with the current team or other superstars prospects. Conversely, some superstars are just so good they trump any concerns and are worth making whatever adjustments you need to accommodate them. LeBron James is obviously one of those players who could fit that description.
Here’s how the four of the most likely superstar targets fit the Lakers:
Paul George, Small Forward. It’s no surprise Paul George checks the boxes better than any other Lakers superstar prospect. He’s only 27 years old, is from Southern California, and has the quickness and defensive chops and catch-and-shoot skills to play shooting guard for the Lakers alongside Lonzo Ball. A Lakers’ starting lineup of Lonzo Ball, Paul George, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Julius Randle could be a juggernaut at both ends next year.
DeMarcus Cousins, Center. When everything’s been said and done, Boogie is such a dominating talent and perfect fit at a position of need for the Lakers that it’ s worth gambling he’ll still be a top five NBA center after he recovers. Since he’s only 27, he should still be a good chance of coming back strong. Boogie would give the Lakers a starting lineup of Lonzo Ball, Paul George, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle or Kyle Kuzma, and DeMarcus Cousins.
LeBron James, Small Forward. While he’s unquestionably the best player in the league, LeBron at 32 is a not a good fit for the twenty-something Lakers, would cost $5 million more in cap space, take the ball out of Lonzo’s hands, and require the Lakers to either trade, bench, or play Brandon Ingram out of position. Signing LeBron only makes sense if the Lakers parley it into a trade of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and picks to the Spurs for Kawhi Leonard.
Kawhi Leonard, Small Forward. You can be sure Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have had this discussion and I wouldn’t even be surprised if they’ve already talked to the Spurs. Nobody knows whether Kawhi will be available but something’s going on. Trading for Kawhi would probably cost the Lakers Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and draft picks but they would then have two of the top five players in the league in LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard.
What the above analysis hints at is there are two logical pathways the Lakers might follow this summer in their pursuit of two superstars. The first would involve building around their talented young core and adding superstars like Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins who complement and fit the young core. It could very well be the route the Lakers ultimately take should LeBron James and or Kawhi Leonard not become available via free agency or trade.
The second pathway involves signing LeBron James and trading Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma for Kawhi Leonard. There is no doubt this route would make the Lakers an immediate championship contender since they would have two of the top five players in the league as well as young talent like Lonzo Ball, Julius Randle, and Josh Hart. Trading two rising stars like Ingram and Kuzma would be a huge price to pay but Magic would do it.
How the superstars in question and their teams fare in the playoffs will be a major factor determining whom will be available to pursue but the Lakers still need to determine what they want this summer. Are they ready to go all in for LeBron and Kawhi even if it would mean losing Ingram and Kuzma? Or are they confident they already have future all-stars and superstars among their young core and commit to pursuing superstars to complement them?
Regardless of what happens, the Lakers are no longer the panicky team short on talent and desperate to make a splash in free agency they were in the past. Come July 1st, they’ll survey the market and make a decision that will impact the franchise for the next decade and hopefully lead to NBA championships.. I’m hoping that decision will be to build their next superteam around their trio of budding young stars Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma.