Lakers set themselves up to be ultimate winner in Kawhi Leonard trade

Sporting News
The Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard in a blockbuster trade with the Spurs, but the Lakers know Leonard will be thinking of them once he hits free agency next summer.

Lakers set themselves up to be ultimate winner in Kawhi Leonard trade

The Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard in a blockbuster trade with the Spurs, but the Lakers know Leonard will be thinking of them once he hits free agency next summer.

As the sun rose above the Hollywood Hills early Wednesday morning, you could almost see Magic Johnson smile.

The Lakers received what could turn out to be a gift when the Spurs decided to rid themselves of the headache that was Kawhi Leonard and send him out of San Antonio (and the country). Leonard, along with Danny Green, was traded to the Raptors in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round pick.

And with that deal completed, the two-year plan that Johnson and the Lakers front office have touted is starting to take shape.

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The Raptors had been rumored to be in the running for Leonard over the past two weeks as the Sixers and Lakers talks backed away from the negotiating table. Though some took the rumors seriously, others felt that Leonard to the Raptors was a long shot. Leonard re-signing to stay in Toronto after the upcoming season seemed far-fetched with his preferred destination being Los Angeles.

But Raptors president Masai Ujiri seems confident that he can convince Leonard to stay in Toronto for the long haul. Ujiri’s confidence may end up being exactly what the Lakers need.

Before LeBron James made his decision to become a Laker, there were rumors floating around that he was hesitant to sign first with zero assurances other stars would flock to LA. The pressure to acquire Leonard before July 1 when James hit free agency began to mount — and the Spurs knew it.

They asked for all of the Lakers' young assets: Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, multiple future first-round picks and a spot in Denzel Washington's next movie (OK, maybe not that last one). And while the two sides engaged in talks, they never seemed to get all that close to making a deal. The Lakers knew they would be giving up too much, and the Spurs' asking price was so high they never came across as serious about getting anything done.

Once James committed to a long-term deal, Johnson realized that he had time. His two-year free agency plan was still intact. He acquired the biggest star in the NBA this offseason, and he still had another year to make good on his promises.

STONE: Why Kawhi could be worth risk for Raptors

And no one expects the Lakers to compete for a title next season. They are not even expected to make it out of the gauntlet that is the Western Conference. So why sacrifice all your young assets to acquire a player who you could get for free in one year’s time?

Toronto will be a tough sell for Leonard. For a guy that grew up in Southern California and attended college in San Diego, the Canadian winters could be difficult to handle. And even though Toronto is a beautiful city and a favorite of NBA players to visit, Leonard reportedly had no desire to play there. (He later warmed up to the idea of being a Raptor, for whatever that's worth.)

The chances of Leonard being a one-year rental for the Raptors before taking off for Los Angeles are high. But the Lakers have been in this situation before.

For the past year, it seemed that the Lakers were in the driver’s seat to acquire Paul George once he became a free agent this summer. George, who grew up outside of LA in Palmdale, Calif., previously stated his desire to wear the purple and gold. George was supposedly a lock to return to his hometown.

And then he played for a season with Thunder star Russell Westbrook, and ultimately decided that Oklahoma City was the place he wanted to call home without offering the Lakers a chance to make their pitch. So could the Leonard situation end in a similar fashion? Of course. Anything could happen over the next year.

MORE: With Kawhi Leonard trade, Raptors land on wrong side of line between hope, desperation

But the Lakers seem content with their current position. And they seem confident that when push comes to shove, free agents will choose to play with James in a Lakers uniform.

And while the Lakers have only been able to acquire one star free agent this offseason, they are in great shape. They still have all of their young assets, and they have the knowledge that when Leonard becomes a free agent next season, they will be first on his mind.

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