Good news Lakers fans. The pipeline dream of bagging LeBron James, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard this summer is possible for the purple and gold.
James and George, both eligible to become free agents this coming July, have been linked to the Lakers since the start of last season. James can opt out of his current contract this summer and given how his Cleveland Cavaliers have undergone a facelift last season, he may no longer want any part of them again. Without Kyrie Irving and after trading away half of its 2017-18 season opening day roster, the Cavs were swept by the Golden State Warriors in the 2018 NBA Finals. That for James to win another title and beat the Warriors again, he will need a new venue and better teammates to do the job. Moving to Los Angeles will not necessarily give him the latter. But with Los Angeles’ financial flexibility, they can assemble a better team around him.
George meanwhile, was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder prior to the start of the 2017-18 season after he didn’t want a contract extension with the Indiana Pacers. Despite assuming the risk of losing him after just one season, the Thunder pulled the guns on a PG13 trade, hoping that he, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony would achieve something special last season to make all of them want to stay in small market Oklahoma City.
But despite their star-studded line-up, the Thunder sputtered during the 2017-18 season and made an early first round exit during the 2018 NBA Playoffs after losing to a star-less Utah Jazz team 4-2 in Round 1. Led by rookie guard Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz humbled the Thunder’s OK3 and proved that teamwork beats talent anytime. With their debacle in the postseason, it’s widely believed that George will want to look elsewhere. With a Los Angeles homecoming long been a subject of gossips, Paul George may consider going to the Lakers, especially if LeBron James chooses to play there too.
Los Angeles Lakers fans are obviously thrilled at the idea of their team splurging at two max free agents this summer. And who can blame the Lakers? They have been out of relevance for too long now that they desperately need reinforcement. Their young team showed plenty of promise during the 2017-18 season but it was obvious, they needed veteran leadership and star power. James and George can provide those and more.
But a twist in the plot may be in the works. Earlier this week, San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard reportedly demanded for a trade and has handpicked Los Angeles as his preferred destination. Leonard, who was born in Los Angeles, had become disgruntled after how his recovery and rehab from a quad injury has been handled by the team.
With the idea of being the next super team, let’s take a look at the possibilities in Los Angeles and if the Lakers can indeed pull off this ambitious dream.
Moving Luol Deng’s Contract
Currently, the Los Angeles Lakers only have $39M in owed salaries for the 2018-19 season. That includes the $18M salary of Luol Deng for the upcoming season and excluding all their free agents. Deng’s remaining $36.8M for the next two seasons is one of the bigger blocks for the Lakers’ grand summer plans. If they get rid of Deng’s overpriced deal, then they will have enough room to get two max free agents.
Now the Lakers have a couple of options with Deng. First is they can waive him outright and stretch his contract for the next five years. If they do this, Deng will only count in the salary cap for one-fifths of his original price but will remain on the Lakers’ payroll for the next five years. This will give the Lakers an estimated $10.6M ( $18M less $7.3M Deng new cap hit per year computed as $36.8M divided by 5 years ) in additional salary cap next season.
The Lakers can also trade Deng to a rebuilding team like the Atlanta Hawks who have the cap space to absorb an unwanted contract in exchange for getting draft picks and monetary consideration. If this happens, the Lakers will be totally free from Deng but will have to mortgage its future by giving up potential stars in the upcoming drafts.
Trading Deng might be easier if he is packaged in a bigger trade. This is possible too, but there are only a few teams that might be willing to take in Deng so the Lakers must be creative enough to build some kind of package that teams might want to accept. But the point here is that Deng, while unwanted, has to be moved for the Lakers to have a bigger wiggle room this summer.
Leonard Makes It Trickier
The NBA’s salary cap is estimated to be $101M for the 2018-19 season. LeBron James and Paul George are eligible to make $35.4M and $30.3M next season so that’s around $65.7M in cap space the Lakers need to land both. Given that Los Angeles stretches Deng, the Lakers will have around $72.6M to work with this summer ( salary cap of $101M less $39M existing payroll plus $10.6M saved from stretching Deng ), that’s enough to land both James and George and fill up the roster with minimum salaried players and rookies while keeping Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart. Not bad really. But what about Kawhi Leonard?
Leonard makes the situation trickier. The former two time Defensive Player of the Year and 2014 NBA Finals MVP is worth $20.1M this upcoming season and the only way the Lakers acquire him is via a trade. Now this depends entirely on what San Antonio is willing to take in exchange for Leonard. Surely, there are other teams who have better offers to make than the Lakers. But because Los Angeles is his preferred destination, let’s just say that the Spurs will be ‘forced’ to take the best offer from L.A.
Looking at the Lakers’ roster, the best players they can offer in a trade would be Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart. If you look at their current salaries, Ball is the most expensive player at $7.4M while Ingram is next at $5.8M while Kuzma and Hart count as $1.6M each.
The question now is which of the four will the Spurs want in exchange for Leonard? The Spurs could ask for all four and that’s possible but in doing so, the Lakers would be gutting their entire line-up, leaving the team with virtually nobody after James, George and Leonard. We know this is suicide. Just look at what happened to the OKC Thunder this season. Without depth, they got easily beaten by the Jazz in the playoffs.
Losing Their 2017-18 Core
But for computation’s sake, let’s just say the Spurs ask all four. They count as $16.4M on the salary cap. Trading that value versus Kawhi’s $20.1M leaves Los Angeles with an additional $3.7M in salaries. Including Deng’s full salary of $18M plus Julius Randle’s $12.4M cap hold ( provided the Lakers will make a qualifying offer of $5.6M to make him a restricted free agent ), the Lakers will have a total of $55M in salaries before LeBron James and Paul George but after trading for Kawhi Leonard ( $39M salary plus additional $3.7M in acquiring Leonard plus Randle cap hold of $12.4M ). Deduct that amount from the projected salary cap of $101M, that gives Los Angeles some $46M to sign free agents and fill up their roster. That would be enough to sign James but not George or vice versa.
If Los Angeles stretches Deng, they get an extra $10.6M ( computation shown above ). Without Randle, they get another extra $12.4M. So that’s $23M with Deng stretched and Randle waived or a grand total of $69M for the Lakers. Now $69M is enough to sign James and George but that will leave them with only around $4M to fill up the entire roster. Since they already gave away four players ( our assumption ) to get Kawhi Leonard, they will only have James, George, Leonard, Tyler Ennis, Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant left on their roster for a total cost of around $97M ( including Deng’s $7.3M stretched salary ).
The balance of $4M will be enough to sign only 5 minimum salaried players and not enough to complete a team. So getting James, George and Leonard won’t be possible by stretching Deng, even if they lose Ingram, Ball, Kuzma, Hart and Randle. To get all three and complete a team, they need to get rid of Deng’s entire $18M salary for 2018-19. Getting rid of it will leave Los Angeles with around $11.3M to work with. The math for this will work.
So assuming the Lakers are able to trade Deng somewhere, Los Angeles will have a line-up of LeBron James, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Tyler Ennis, Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant The Lakers also own the 25th ( via Cavs ) and 47 pick of the 2018 draft. Per rookie salary scale, the 25th pick is worth $1.4M . Last year’s 47th pick earned $950K so that leaves Los Angeles with around $9M to fill up the team with 5 more players.
Possibilities are Limitless
Now let’s look back at our Kawhi Leonard trade and assume that the Spurs don’t take all four players. The least players the Spurs would covet from the quartet would probably Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball. Given their $9M, the Lakers can retain Hart if they don’t include him in the trade and still have $7.4M to sign 4 players. The NBA’s minimum salary is $815,615 for players without NBA experience. So given this scenario, the Lakers can still sign at least one decent veteran and three minimum salaried players. The combinations can change.
If the Lakers include Hart in the Leonard trade and retain Lonzo Ball, they will only have around $4M to sign 4 more players. That will be only be good for four minimum salaried players. But the Lakers get to keep Lonzo Ball, a pass first point guard who may be more effective with three big time scorers around him.
These are just a few of the many scenarios that can happen for the Lakers should they pursue LeBron James, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Based on what we discussed, getting all three is a real possibility. But the problem for the Lakers is that they will be gutting out their entire line-up and starting from scratch.
This is basically what happened to the OKC Thunder last season and we know how they struggled during the regular season just to get their team to play together. But the Lakers’ credit, this is a different Big Three with LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard on board. Let’s face it, Melo is a one dimensional player. LeBron and Kawhi are multi-dimensional. There could be a big difference.
Another factor here is that while James, Paul and Leonard are versatile, they play the same position. Would the Lakers be better off just getting two of them and keeping their core? Or should the Lakers still for a Big Three but chase a big man like DeMarcus Cousins instead? The possibilities are limitless. We’re going to find out how creative Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson are this summer. One thing’s sure though. This is a good time to be a Lakers fan. Really.
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