Getting LeBron James to agree to join the Lakers in free agency was the first and perhaps biggest step in the Los Angeles Lakers’ turnaround plan.
But if you thought bagging the league’s biggest star in the summer of 2018 was all the Lakers’ brass had in mind, you clearly have not been paying attention. Lakers President Magic Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka aren't done reshaping the league’s most iconic franchise.
LeBron was the first splash in what could be a tidal wave next summer, when the Lakers will be flush with enough cap space ($35.7 million) to chase another superstar … or maybe even two.
Think Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and/or others. If you’ve already reeled in the biggest star in the game, no one is off limits.
And the Lakers aren’t limited to the free-agent market. With the way they’ve positioned themselves -- youngsters still on rookie deals and a cast of veterans not named LeBron on franchise-friendly one-year contracts -- they could just as easily mine the trade market in February.
That might require the Lakers to part ways with one of their prized young players (Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma or Lonzo Ball) before they reach anything close to their potential. But that’s a risk that might have to be taken to elevate the Lakers to championship contention during the four-year window LeBron is working with right now.
So, who could join LeBron in purple and gold for the start of the 2019-20 season? One or more of the aforementioned stars and/or possibly even someone else who isn’t currently on the radar.
But let’s start with the summer of 2019’s Big Four:
• Kawhi Leonard’s desire to return to his Southern California roots were postponed when San Antonio traded him to Toronto in a multi-player deal that sent DeMar DeRozan to the Spurs. But everyone knows the Raptors are on the clock. If they cannot forge the kind of bond with Leonard that the Oklahoma City Thunder did last season with Paul George, Leonard could be on the move. The LA Clippers could also satisfy Leonard’s need for a SoCal home base. But the Clippers don’t have LeBron on their roster to help woo one of the league’s best two-way players. With the Warriors and Rockets at the top of heap in the Western Conference and the league, you must fight star power with star power of your own.
• Jimmy Butler is making so much noise, there's no telling where he ends up playing this season. His trade request from the Timberwolves came before training camp started, giving the Lakers (and other interested teams) oodles of time to evaluate the situation and digest what adding a combustible star of Butler’s ilk might bring. What isn’t in question is Butler’s talent and the fact that he’s the sort of elite, two-way perimeter star that would flourish alongside LeBron. The Lakers could wait and chase Butler next summer instead of giving up assets they’d prefer to hold on to. But Butler is the one player in this group who is virtually guaranteed to be on the move.
• Klay Thompson has the deepest Lakers ties of any player in the league. He grew up in a Lakers’ household, with his father Mychal winning a pair of championships with the Showtime Lakers. Thompson, of course, has repeatedly stated that he wants to stay with the Warriors … and the Warriors won’t want to let one of their franchise pillars leave -- especially to join the Lakers. But that’s exactly why Thompson makes so much sense for the Lakers. A catch-and-shoot wizard and standout defender, Thompson would be an ideal complement to LeBron, the Lakers' best playmaker since Magic. (Sorry, Steve Nash.) This is a homecoming the Lakers would relish, both for what it does for them and what it would take away from the Warriors.
• Kevin Durant is the nuclear option. If Johnson and Pelinka (with a huge recruiting boost by LeBron, of course) got Durant to relocate to SoCal for a superstar pairing the NBA hasn’t seen since the Shaq-Kobe years, it would turn the basketball world upside down. Since arriving in Oakland as a free agent in 2016, Durant has only signed one-year deals with a player option. James and Durant have worked out together over the years and have a friendship as healthy as their professional rivalry. Joining forces would enrage fans everywhere outside of Los Angeles, and no doubt make them both targets of former players who have complained about the lack of competitiveness among the today’s NBA superstars.
Whatever transpires between now, the February trade deadline and next summer’s free-agent period, the Lakers are ready to pounce.
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