It may not be the popular opinion, but the Los Angeles Lakers will likely be fine even if they don’t land LeBron James in free agency. If so, fans will just have to be patient and, to borrow an expression from former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, “trust the process.”
As of this writing, the big news is that contrary to most rumors in previous days and weeks, Paul George will be re-signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder after all, according to a report from ESPN. Many believe this could be a spanner in the works for the Lakers as they hope to sign James to a lucrative deal, considering how many reports suggest that the team would need to sign or trade for another top-tier talent in order to lure LeBron to Los Angeles.
With ESPN’s Marc Spears reporting that DeMarcus Cousins will be meeting with the Lakers and his erstwhile team, the New Orleans Pelicans, to talk potential contracts, and the countless reports monitoring the latest developments in the Kawhi Leonard trade saga, that gives the Lakers two potential big names they could use as “LeBron bait.” But what fate could befall them if they end up in the purple and gold in 2018-19?
Cousins, for one, would come in as an injury risk due to the Achilles tear that ended his 2017-18 season in January, with ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith recently saying that he “might not even be ready to play” in 2018-19, as quoted by Lakers Nation. Never mind his previous reputation as a disruptive locker room force – the possibility of missing a good part, if not all of the coming season makes signing Cousins a huge gamble.
As for Leonard, he too is coming off his own injury issues, as he played just nine games in the 2017-18 season. But the main issue here is the possibility that the Lakers may have to trade some of its up-and-coming young stars — any combination of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, or Julius Randle — in order to get Leonard. The Lakers aren’t always known for their high draft picks, but when they did get to pick high, they ended up with future Hall of Famers like Jerry West, Magic Johnson, and James Worthy.
It’s way too early to predict Hall of Fame greatness for any one of the Lakers’ recent lottery picks (and last year’s No. 27 overall pick Kuzma), but the San Antonio Spurs could easily end up winners in the long run in a Kawhi Leonard trade if Ball and/or Ingram, for instance, gives them 10 to 15 years of stellar play. Leonard, who turned 27 on Friday, still has a lot of gas left in his tank, but might not have that long to remain productive as compared to Ball and Ingram (20), Kuzma (22), or Randle (23).
Now that brings us back to the topic of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. With or without another big name via free agency or trade, James could potentially be a good fit for the Lakers and be good enough to lead them to a deep playoff run. But the key words here are “could” and “potentially” — James may be one of the NBA’s greatest of all-time, but would he have chemistry with the Lakers’ other starters, especially since he’s had the most success playing in veteran-oriented lineups? That’s one big unknown to consider as the entire league heads into free agency season.
One need not look back too far to the last time the Lakers had a “super-team,” which was in the 2012-13 season when they added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to a lineup that already had Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. That Lakers team went 45-37 and got swept by the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs, and the team hasn’t made the postseason ever since. Or what about the time they teamed Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal with the aging duo of Karl Malone and Gary Payton? Those Lakers made the 2004 NBA Finals as many had expected, but lost, 4-1, to head coach Larry Brown and his no-superstar, “play the right way” Detroit Pistons lineup.
Summing it all up, this lifelong fan of the purple and gold wouldn’t mind it if LeBron James signed for the Los Angeles Lakers, and if DeMarcus Cousins and/or Kawhi Leonard also joined the team. If Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka want to win now, there’s no better way to do so. But it might still be a more worthwhile endeavor for Lakers management to play the long game, develop the team’s young nucleus, and do whatever they can to keep those youngsters in Los Angeles, with Julius Randle’s restricted free agency being a current example.
If fans can be patient in the event James spurns the Lakers and if management adds a few complementary players here and there to support the team’s core, we could be looking at a postseason mainstay in a couple years’ time, and maybe even a championship-caliber team for many years to come.