Is it time for Magic Johnson and the Lakers to cash in their chips and get back into the Big Game? The move would likely cost them two of their brightest young stars but could also launch them back into championship contention.
Magic Johnson is chomping at the bit eager to embrace the franchise defining and personally challenging opportunity of transforming the Lakers overnight from a lottery team that hasn’t made the playoffs in five years to a legitimate championship contender with three superstars, including two former MVP’s. If there is any way Magic can pull off this hat trick, you better believe he is going to go for it. An instant superstar big three is Magic’s dream rebuild.
The critical first step will likely be trading Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma for Kawhi Leonard, which will then guarantee LeBron James will follow. You can argue that’s too much for the Lakers to give up considering the situation but then we’re talking about a move that is essentially a trade of Ingram and Kuzma for Kawhi and LeBron. Two unproven young prospects for two of the top five players in the NBA. Nobody could really fault Magic for that trade.
The Spurs would be thrilled if they could walk away from the Kawhi Leonard situation with two budding young stars as promising as Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma and the Lakers 2019 first round pick. While Magic could hold out to keep Kuzma, there’s no way that should be a deal breaker. Not when the ultimate prize is a superteam that could challenge the Golden State Warriors. You grit your teeth, wish Brandon and Kyle the best, and pull the trigger.
Trading for Kawhi and signing LeBron would also leave the Lakers in a better roster situation than if they’d signed LeBron and Paul George as free agents. Instead of being capped out by two superstars with no options other than minimum contracts to build out the roster, trading for Kawhi would leave the Lakers with $20 to $35 million in open cap space depending on whether they were able to trade Luol Deng’s bad contract without taking any salary back.
Landing Paul George is where the questions really begin because it would require the Lakers to trade rather than waiving and stretching Luol Deng’s contract, which will cost them at least another valuable first round draft pick. After trading Ingram and Kuzma for Kawhi and dumping Deng for picks, then the Lakers would be within a half million dollars of having enough cap space to sign both LeBron James and Paul George to multiple year max contracts.
Assuming they sign Brook Lopez or Nerlens Noel with their room extension, the Lakers could boast a starting lineup of Lonzo Ball, Paul George, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and either Brook Lopez or Nerlens Noel at center. Reserves would include Josh Hart, Moritz Wagner, Sviatoslov Mykhailiuk, and Isaac Bonga with six roster openings for veterans on minimum deals. How competitive the team could likely depend on the veterans they add.
But would a Lakers’ superteam with LeBron, Kawhi, and PG be good enough to dethrone the Warriors? The Warriors big four of Curry, Durant, Thompson, and Green probably trump the Lakers’ super trio and their experienced bench with Iguodala, Livingston, and Young would likely be stronger than whatever the Lakers could put together. On the other hand, the Lakers would have the best player on the planet in LeBron and best supporting cast he’s ever had.
In the end, the Lakers with three superstars are probably just a top four team in the West, better than Houston and their two superstars but not yet ready to take down the Golden State and their big four. The problem is getting there will have left the Lakers without the open cap space to sign free agents or the good young talent and first round draft picks needed to upgrade via trade. In other words, the Lakers upside as a team would essentially be maxed out.
Would the Lakers be better off stopping with two superstars? They could waive and stretch Deng rather than giving up more picks. They could sign a collection of valuable role players on short term deals and put themselves in position to be a player in next summer’s free agency and wait until then to pursue a third superstar. Or they could decide to sign midlevel contributors like Julius Randle and Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, or Avery Bradley.
The challenge and cost facing the Lakers in building a superteam featuring Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, and Paul George could very well define Magic Johnson’s reign as President of Basketball Operations for the Lakers.