As news of a possible Lakers trade for Kawhi Leonard spread like wildfire across the Internet, the Lakers’ grand plan to land two superstars this summer was suddenly left behind and replaced by dreams of a superstar Big Three.
Who could blame hungry Lakers fans and journalists from seizing on the news from Kawhi’s camp, which means his uncle and agent Mitchell Frankel, that Kawhi wanted a trade to a team in Los Angeles, preferably the Lakers? The minute the news hit, mock trades from ESPN’s Trade Machine showed the only viable trade between the Lakers and Spurs for Kawhi would indeed leave the Lakers with enough cap space for LeBron James and Paul George.
Of course, there’s no chance that trade will ever happen because it would require the Spurs to absorb Luol Deng’s 2-year $37 million contract to make salaries match since the Lakers are over the cap, and the Spurs won’t do that. That just means any trade for Kawhi the Lakers make would have to be after July 1st and would not include Deng, thus leaving the Lakers still $10 million short of what they need to sign both LeBron and Paul George to max deals.
That’s actually good news for the Lakers because trading for Kawhi Leonard now and adding a second superstar in free agency this summer lets the Lakers land two superstars without losing the valuable upside and depth they would have lost under the original grand plan to sign two superstars in free agency. The Lakers also get a shot to land two top-five players in Kawhi and LeBron and keep assets like team MVP Julius Randle and budding star Kyle Kuzma.
The Lakers need to view a Kawhi trade as not leaving them $10 million short of signing a third superstar but as giving them $20-25 million to surround the two superstars they landed with the talent and depth to be a real contender. Kawhi wanting to come to the Lakers could be a gift from the basketball gods but trying to parlay it into a superstar Big Three that would strip the team’s young core down to just Lonzo Ball would only mortgage a bright future.
If the Lakers can satisfy themselves regarding Kawhi’s injury and mindset, it makes sense to make the trade for him providing they don’t give up too much. A trade of Ingram, Hart, and the 2019 first round pick for Kawhi after July 1st would be fair and more than the Spurs could get if Kawhi lets it be known he’ll only resign with the Lakers. If the Spurs want more, the Lakers should probably decline and plan to sign him as a free agent in the summer of 2019.
Trading for Kawhi now and signing LeBron or PG in free agency would let the Lakers build a deeper, stronger roster than signing two free agent superstars. It basically would give them $20–25 million in cap space to use to pursue a third veteran star or multiple impact role players in free agency or to take on bad salary in a trade for a coveted player or additional first round draft pick, options the Lakers wouldn’t have had after signing two superstar free agents.
In a free agency market where cap space is going to be at a premium, the Lakers should find themselves in a strong buyers’ market with lots of options. They could use the cap space to re-sign Julius Randle to a long term contract and Isaiah Thomas to a short term ‘prove it’ deal. Or they could use it to sign two or three quality role players from a talented pool including Trevor Ariza, Marcus Smart, Rajon Rondo, Nerlens Noel, Brook Lopez, and Avery Bradley.
The Lakers could also use the $20–25 million in cap space to take on salary in a trade. The Memphis Grizzlies are seeking to trade the #4 pick in the draft to a team to absorb Chandler Parsons 2-year $47 million contract. The Lakers could swoop in and steal Mo Bamba as their center of the future. Parsons contract could also be waived and stretched so the hit would drop from $24.1 million to $9.4 million, leaving $10–15 million that could be used elsewhere.
I would also love to see the Lakers consider trading with the Denver Nuggets for the #14 pick in return for taking Faried’s $14.3 million expiring contract. The Lakers could then use the #14 pick to draft one of sharpshooting guard Kevin Huerter or elite defensive guard Zhaire Smith, both players who would be high level solutions to two of the team’s greatest needs. Landing a lottery player like Bamba, Huerter, or Smith would be a huge coup for the Lakers.
The media will continue to hype the idea of a Kawhi Leonard trade opening up the opportunity for the Lakers to build a superstar Big Three even though there’s no way that can happen if we’re talking about maximum contracts. But the silver lining is trading for Kawhi will give the Lakers the flexibility to add more key pieces to the Lakers’ young core and build a deeper and better bench to complement what could be a legitimate championship contender.