Armed with a new four-year $154 million contract courtesy of the greatest basketball player on the planet, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka face a critical crossroads deciding who will be the next superstar to play with LeBron.
Barring a trade before September training camp, the Lakers will open the 2018–19 season with LeBron James as their only superstar, surrounding him with an intriguing collection of budding young stars on rookie contracts and savvy veterans who can make plays and defend but who’ll spend the first half of the season trying to avoid becoming bait at the midseason trade deadline, when the Lakers could end up being buyers looking for a second superstar.
Once the Lakers finish their remaining free agency moves, they’ll begin the 2018–19 season over the cap but with a clear pathway to being able to create $45 million in cap space to chase free agent superstars in the summer 2019. The Lakers would be wise to remain patient and not give in to the urge to prematurely trade any of their young talent for a second superstar during the season and instead wait to sign a superstar in free agency next summer.
The ability to be patient and wait for the right superstar is the great benefit of the surprise long-term contract LeBron was willing to sign with the Lakers. LeBron has committed to building a sustainable championship team and one of the major reasons he chose to join the Lakers was his belief in their trio of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma. Unless the Lakers get an offer they can’t refuse, they need to give their young core this season to break out.
The list of superstar players who are likely to be available next summer is a veritable All-Star game roster that potentially includes Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins, and Clint Capela. With LeBron James recruiting, the Lakers should have their pick of the class. The question is what should the Lakers’ priority be in choosing their second superstar? What roster positions and superstar skillsets do they need most?
The Lakers currently have promising young stars in Lonzo Ball at point guard, Brandon Ingram at small forward, and Kyle Kuzma at power forward. While LeBron James can play every position, his best natural fit is as small or power forward, although he can also be a matchup nightmare as a small ball center. Since we have a good starter at shooting guard in KCP but no starting center, landing a championship caliber center as their next superstar would be ideal.
Fortunately for the Lakers, the perfect candidate to be their superstar center should be available next summer because negotiations between Clint Capela and the Houston Rockets have broken down with Capela possibly signing his qualifying offer so he can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. If that happens, Clint Capela should be the Lakers top priority. Just 23, Capela is the perfect balance between winning now and building for the future.
While everybody seems focused on the Lakers needing a stretch five to create space for LeBron to operate, finding a mobile modern center who can protect the rim and anchor the team’s ‘switch everything’ defense is more important. Capela is unique in that he can protect the rim and defend power centers in the post and switch and defend guards and wings out to the three point line. He’s the rare rim protector who can stay on the floor when teams go small.
A big part of Magic’s pitch to LeBron was that shooting was not the way to beat Golden State. Instead, you beat them with ‘toughness,’ playmaking, and defense. A starting line for the 2019–20 season featuring Lonzo Ball, KCP, Brandon Ingram, LeBron James, and Clint Capela could be a top five defense. And a talented bench featuring Rajon Rondo, Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma, Svi Mykhailiuk, Moritz Wagner could be the key to beating the Warriors.
Who will be Robin to LeBron’s Batman? Clint Capela is my early prediction as the Lakers need to exercise patience and carefully balance winning now with building for the future when choosing the next superstar to play with LeBron.