LeBron James’s move from Cleveland to Los Angeles in July required a relative leap of faith. His two previous departures came with co-stars ready and super teams assembled, from Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami to Kyrie Irving and the soon-to-be-acquired Kevin Love in James’s return to Cleveland. The Lakers roster presently surrounding James consists of veteran cast-offs and unproven youngsters. A tailor-made title contender is nowhere in sight.
James didn’t necessarily have to be a solo star when he signed a four-year, $154 million deal with Los Angeles. The Lakers reportedly discussed a Paul George trade with the Pacers in June 2017, but opted to pass on shipping assets to Indiana, assuming George would come back home and sign with the Lakers 13 months later. George ended up in Oklahoma City for the final year of his contract in 2017-18, re-signing in July amid a burgeoning bromance with Russell Westbrook. Another superstar came on the market this summer as Kawhi Leonard forced his way out of San Antonio. But the Lakers passed on a potential bidding war once again, holding their young assets as Toronto swooped in to acquire the former Finals MVP. LeBron’s right-hand man wouldn’t be George or Leonard, but perhaps Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball or Kyle Kuzma. A conference finals appearance with such an unheralded squad would be among James’s greatest accomplishments.
MAHONEY: Anthony Davis Trade Hype Has Been Years in the Making
Los Angeles’s kids have largely held up playing next to James, going 20–14 before James injured his groin in a Christmas Day win over Golden State. Yet even with impressive starts from Kuzma (and to a lesser degree) Ball, no Laker aside from James projects to be a multi-time All-Star. Perhaps Kuzma evolves into a George-esque scorer and Ball’s shot stabilizes. Maybe Ingram will become more Kevin Durant than Tim Hardaway. But entering the second-half of 2018-19, the Lakers without significant additions are more likely to suffer a round one exit than represent the West in the Finals.
The Lakers could very well play out this season with James and their young core, and an early playoff exit will be far from a catastrophe. James is signed with the Lakers through 2021-22, and don’t expect Los Angeles to sit out the 2019 free agent pool. When scanning the top names on the market, though, the options become less realistic. Kyrie Irving would rather embrace a spherical globe than play with James again. Kevin Durant called the environment around James “toxic.”
Jimmy Butler will likely chase top dollar, and Philly’s big three should continue into 2019-20. Kemba Walker is an intriguing option—and a potential seamless fit with James, Ball and Co.— though his recent comments make a long-term commitment to Charlotte more likely. Is Khris Middleton really going to vault Los Angeles from also-ran to top dog? A sidekick for James will be hard to acquire via the 2019 free-agent pool.
There is one non-free agent who should come available over the next year, the apple of GM’s eyes throughout the league. Anthony Davis is signed through 2019-20, yet as the Pelicans continue to slip down the West standings—New Orleans enters Monday 14th in the West at 18–22—the likelihood of a new franchise for AD increases. Rather than lose Davis for nothing two summers from now, the Pelicans could kickstart one of the greatest bidding wars in league history, seeking a haul for the former No. 1 pick. It would be the responsible move from New Orleans brass, albeit a painful one.
The Lakers’ biggest rival in a potential Davis deal is likely their longtime cross-country foe, headed by Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens. Los Angeles’s collection of assets can’t match Boston unless Jayson Tatum is declared untouchable, and even then, perhaps a combination of picks, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and others would vault the Celtics over the top. It would help Boston if Brown regains any semblance of success from beyond the arc. A slide down the standings from Sacramento (Boston owns its 2019 first rounder) would also add to the package. The Celtics have delved into a ‘Process’ of their own in the past decade, hoarding assets since dealing Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn. Boston’s wealth of talent—and a well-timed trade demand—netted Kyrie Irving. It could very well lure a second superstar to TD Garden.
Boston will have to bide its time for any potential Davis deal, though, unable to acquire the Kentucky product until July. A collective bargaining rule states no team can acquire multiple “Rose Rule” players—those who signed rookie extensions for 30% of their team’s salary cap—via trade. Irving signed his Rose Rule extension with Cleveland in 2015. Davis did the same in New Orleans in 2016. Irving will enter free agency on July 1, the first date in which Boston can acquire Davis. Even if Irving re-signs, his contract will no longer be under the Rose Rule, creating a potential dynamic duo with Davis. But until July 1, Ainge will have to play the waiting game
The CBA oddity gives Los Angeles a leg up on its greatest competition for Davis (unless Philadelphia dangles Ben Simmons or a mystery suitor emerges), a month-plus window without Boston’s interference before February’s trade deadline. The Lakers previously missed out on a pair of stars, waiting for a free-agency coup that never came to fruition. They can’t make the same mistake with the Davis sweepstakes, holding onto their young assets who may never emerge as All-Stars. The Lakers have a golden opportunity over the next six weeks. They can’t afford to waste it.