Can Kawhi still join LeBron and the Lakers?
The possibility of trading for Kawhi Leonard this summer is off the table for the Los Angeles Lakers, barring a stunning change of plans after Leonard was dealt to the Toronto Raptors earlier this week.
So now what for the Lakers’ hopes of adding a second star player to complement newly signed LeBron James?
Lakers’ 2018-19 roster close to complete
When the Lakers officially completed deals for JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson last week, they exhausted their cap space, leaving the $4.49 million room midlevel exception as the only way for L.A. to add a free agent making more than the minimum salary. At this point, it appears the Lakers might leave the room exception unused.
Already, the Lakers have 14 players under guaranteed contract for 2018-19, and they’ve begun filling out their roster for training camp by signing Joel Berry and Jeffrey Carroll as undrafted free agents. Add in the two-way contract for Alex Caruso and the Lakers have three spots left on their 20-player camp roster.
It remains to be seen whether the group of free agents the Lakers added on one-year deals, including Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rajon Rondo in addition to McGee and Stephenson, can live up to the front office’s vision of putting playmakers and defenders around LeBron. The team’s focus on adding perimeter depth will certainly give Luke Walton intriguing lineup options.
With McGee the only experienced center on the roster, which also includes first-round pick Moritz Wagner and holdover reserve Ivica Zubac, Walton should have plenty of opportunities to try smaller, quicker lineups with James at center. A Lakers executive told Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus that the coaching staff is “eager to see” what he called their version of the Golden State Warriors‘ “Death Lineup,” with LeBron in the middle flanked by the Lakers’ recent draft picks — Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart at guard and Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma at center.
The success or failure of such units could determine how much the Lakers prioritize adding a traditional center to their core going forward. In the short term, the Lakers’ roster is flawed enough that they appear unlikely to challenge the Warriors and Houston Rockets for Western Conference supremacy. Given the conference’s depth, the Lakers aren’t even assured a playoff spot, though it would probably take an extended absence from James for the Lakers to end up in the lottery.
Everything the Lakers have done since signing James, however, suggests they’re looking more to what they can do in 2019-20 and beyond rather than trying to squeeze every win possible out of this season. Hence one-year contracts for veterans to preserve the team’s cap space and multiyear deals with nonguaranteed seasons for second-round picks Isaac Bonga and Svi Mykhailiuk, potential role players for future Lakers teams.
Where the Lakers stand for summer 2019
Depending where the cap comes in and where their first-round pick falls, the Lakers currently project to have somewhere in the neighborhood of $24 million in cap space next summer. Remember, though, that total still includes Luol Deng. In one of the summer’s most surprising developments, the Lakers kept Deng rather than stretching him because they were unable to convince another max free agent (e.g., Paul George) to join James in L.A.
If the Lakers stretch Deng next summer, his salary will be on the books for only two years rather than three, and at a slightly smaller amount ($6.2 million). So stretching Deng would get the Lakers up to about $36 million in projected cap space, more than enough to sign a player with seven to nine years of experience to a max contract.
Since Deng will only have one season of salary left, it’s possible the Lakers might be able to clear him off the books entirely via trade without having to give up multiple first-round picks. For example, if the Lakers could convince a team to take Deng with their 2019 first-round pick, that would get them up to a projected $43 million in cap space.
With that kind of money, the Lakers could sign Leonard or another max free agent with 7-9 years of experience, a group that also includes Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson and Kemba Walker. Then they would still have $11 million or so in projected cap space, perhaps enough to convince either Caldwell-Pope or Rondo to stick around on another one-year deal. At that point, the Lakers would be able to re-sign them for more money on a long-term deal in the summer of 2020 using Bird rights. (Trading Deng would also position the Lakers to make a max offer to a player with 10-plus years of experience, with Kevin Durant as the possible target there.)
Ideally, the Lakers would then see either Ball or Ingram develop into the third star that has been a necessary part of the championship formula in recent years. Already, the Lakers’ recent drafts look likely to yield solid role players at worst in Hart (2018 Las Vegas Summer League MVP) and Kuzma (All-Rookie first team).
Could the Lakers still deal for Kawhi?
Assuming Leonard reports for and passes a physical in Toronto, it’s still conceivable the Lakers could acquire him this season via trade. After all, one hurdle — the San Antonio Spurs‘ reported unwillingness to deal Leonard to a Western Conference rival in general and the Lakers specifically — is now no longer an obstacle. Nevertheless, a second Leonard trade remains a long shot.
Naturally, the Raptors dealt for Leonard to try to win with him this season. So it’s realistic for Toronto to flip Leonard again only if the team underperforms and Kawhi remains healthy enough to contribute this year. Otherwise, there’s not much point to the Lakers or anyone else offering much for him, given the only advantage it conveys is the opportunity to offer Leonard 8 percent raises if he re-signs rather than the 5 percent raises he can get signing with a new team.
If such an opportunity somehow materializes, the Lakers would have to weigh the benefit of adding Leonard this season and increasing their chances of re-signing him against the cost of giving up young talent and draft picks in a deal. If the Lakers are certain they can sign Leonard as a free agent and don’t think they can compete with the Warriors this year, they’re best off waiting for next summer and trying to add Leonard to their existing core without giving anything up in return.