The Los Angeles Lakers’ 2018-19 season is effectively over.
If their loss to the then-12-win Phoenix Suns on Saturday night wasn’t the final nail in the coffin, their ensuing two losses to the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets were.
Facing a 6.5–game deficit in the Western Conference standings with 17 games to play, the Lakers have less than a 0.1 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index.
Injuries, poor roster construction and questionable coaching all played a part, but regardless of the culprit, LeBron James appears likely to miss the playoffs for the first time since the 2004-05 season. Team president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka must now turn their attention to landing James a bona fide sidekick who can help restore the franchise to its previous heights.
The Lakers could do so by getting lucky during the draft lottery and landing the rights to Zion Williamson or another blue-chip prospect, but that player won’t be on the same developmental timeline as James.
Therein lies the difficulty of building around him: If a player isn’t ready to compete for championships right now, he’s best utilized as a trade chip rather than an on-court asset.
That’s why we won’t consider “developing the youngsters for one more year” or “firing Luke Walton” as the main options available. Either/both may be a piece of the larger strategy, but neither would be enough in a Tinsel Town vacuum.
Johnson and Pelinka have openly proclaimed they plan to be aggressive in free agency this summer. They’ll likely enter the summer with more than $35 million in salary-cap space, which is enough to sign a second star to a max contract.
There is no shortage of candidates from which to choose, but will any of them agree to a back seat to James?
The Lakers also figure to reengage the New Orleans Pelicans in trade discussions for Anthony Davis, provided team owner Jeanie Buss can get over her sour grapes. While Buss decried some of the Lakers’ reported proposals leading up to the trade deadline as “fake news,” Shams Charania of The Athletic reported Wednesday that they made “several aggressive offers to New Orleans involving all of their young core players.” (Namely: Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart.)
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Lakers’ dream scenario is to acquire Davis via trade and sign another superstar free agent, thus assembling a Big Three in the blink of an eye. But if the Pelicans continue to operate in so-called bad faith while discussing Davis trades with Johnson and Co., the Lakers must begin to lay out a plan B.
The pipe dreams
Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson will be three of the most hotly pursued free agents on the market this summer, but none appear likely to join the Lakers.
Earlier this year, Durant spoke with Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher about why some stars may hesitate to team up with James.
“So much hype comes from being around LeBron from other people,” he said. “He has so many fanboys in the media. Even the beat writers just fawn over him. I’m like, ‘we’re playing basketball here’, and it’s not even about basketball at certain points. So I get why anyone wouldn’t want to be in that environment because it’s toxic.”
Durant also poured cold water on the idea of a James-Leonard pairing.
“If you’re a younger player like a Kawhi, trying to pair him with LeBron James doesn’t really make sense,” he said. “Kawhi enjoys having the ball in his hands, controlling the offense, dictating the tempo with his post-ups; it’s how he plays the game. A lot of young players are developing that skill. They don’t need another guy.”
Call it rumor, speculation, whatever, but if Durant does leave the Golden State Warriors this summer, rumors have pointed to the New York Knicks. If Leonard bids adieu to the Raptors, the Los Angeles Clippers could be his most likely destination. And barring something unexpected, the odds of Thompson leaving the Warriors are slim to none.
The Lakers aren’t necessarily out of the running, but nothing indicates they’re in it either. The Lakers best not have blinders on, only viewing these three as if they were some kind of preferred destination. The sooner they plan for the next tier of options, the better.
The max candidates
When Kyrie Irving called James in mid-January to apologize for not appreciating his leadership style, he sparked speculation about whether he’d be willing to rejoin his former teammate in L.A. While the Lakers already have a point guard in Ball, that’s nothing a trade can’t fix, and Irving can operate in off-ball settings as well.
Irving proclaimed in October that he would re-sign with the Celtics this summer, but he’s been more squirrely about his free-agency plans as of late. A reunion with James hypothetically could be in the cards, but the Knicks, Clippers and other teams with max cap space all figure to pursue him as well.
The Lakers could turn their attention to the Philadelphia 76ers, who have two max- or near-max-worthy impending free agents in Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. The Sixers will reportedly prioritize Harris, according to Wojnarowski, although they hope to bring back both players after acquiring them via trade in recent months.
If the Sixers suffer an earlier-than-expected playoff exit, the team’s ownership may balk at the enormous luxury-tax bill they’d eventually incur by re-signing Butler and Harris.
The Lakers also reportedly have interest in Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton, per Sean Deveney of Sporting News. While the Bucks just locked up Eric Bledsoe on a long-term extension, they have yet to balance new deals for Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic, which could crack the door open for L.A.
“I feel like over the years we’re building something special here, so I feel like there will be an opportunity for me to be here and win at the same time,” Middleton told Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill in mid-December. “If I feel like I have a chance to win somewhere else and do better things, I’ll look into that.”
Kemba Walker sounds as though he plans on re-signing with the Charlotte Hornets in July, which may take him off the table as well. The Hornets don’t have an obvious path toward championship contention any time soon, but the lifestyle in Charlotte appears to suit Walker well.
“I feel like it’s a normal life for me,” he told Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today in mid-February. “I’m never overwhelmed here whenever I do want to get out of the house—walk around, walk around the mall, be me. That’s what I love the most.”
If the Lakers can’t snag someone from this tier, their options become far shakier.
Other free-agent possibilities
Unless both Thompson and Durant leave Golden State this summer, the Warriors likely won’t be able to retain DeMarcus Cousins. According to Marc Stein of the New York Times, the Lakers “had an opportunity to sign Cousins at a one-year price point similar to the one that landed him in Golden State” this past summer (the $5.3 million taxpayer mid-level exception).
However, they passed because they felt as though they couldn’t wait for him to make his return from Achilles surgery.
That won’t be a concern this offseason, although Cousins’ depleted lateral agility might. While he’s shown flashes of his previous upside in Golden State, it may be difficult for the Lakers to build an elite defense if he’s manning the middle. (On the other hand, James wouldn’t be the only Lakers player making lowlight reels for failing to close out!)
Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic is in the midst of a career-best year that netted him his first All-Star Game appearance, which is precisely why Orlando may be reticent to let him walk. Handing out a mega-deal could condemn the Magic to the treadmill of mediocrity, but losing him for nothing may be even more costly.
DeAndre Jordan may prove expendable if the Knicks cash in on their dream of signing two max free agents, but they “also view him as an asset in their pursuit of Durant,” according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. Jordan and Durant have been friends for more than a decade, per Bondy, which may convince him to stay in New York for less money if KD does head there.
Utah Jazz point guard Ricky Rubio is largely duplicative of Ball: He’s too ball-dominant and isn’t a good enough shooter to pair alongside James. But if the Lakers flip Ball in a trade and want a veteran ball-handler not named Rajon Rondo, it may come down to Rubio or Minnesota Timberwolves floor general Jeff Teague, who has a $19 million player option for 2019-20.
Al Horford, Hassan Whiteside, Marc Gasol and Jonas Valanciunas could spruce up the big-man market if they decline their respective player options for next season, while the Denver Nuggets must decide whether to pick up Paul Millsap‘s $30.5 million team option. The Lakers would likely sniff around any of them if they became available.
Since the free-agent market thins out quickly, the Lakers’ best non-Davis option this summer may be trading for a star on a team stuck in purgatory.
The Detroit Pistons have taken encouraging strides as of late, but they don’t have an obvious pathway toward championship contention with Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond each on max contracts. If they aren’t satisfied with a 45-win ceiling—or if they believe Griffin or Drummond are nearing their peak trade value—flipping one for an assortment of the Lakers’ young prospects could be a promising first step in an accelerated rebuild.
The Washington Wizards adamantly refused to dangle Bradley Beal ahead of the trade deadline, as John Wall’s Achilles injury cements Beal as “franchise face” moving forward. However, Beal is under contract for only two more seasons. And with Wall’s supermax clogging the Wizards’ salary-cap sheet for the next four years, Beal may want out sooner than later.
The San Antonio Spurs landed four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan in return for Leonard this past summer, and he’s fared well under the tutelage of head coach Gregg Popovich. But with Pop’s future up in the air—in mid-January, Stein reported he’s “undecided” about whether to continue coaching beyond this season—the Spurs may decide to embark upon a hard reset if/when Pop goes.
The Memphis Grizzlies got a head start on their own rebuild by flipping Gasol at the trade deadline for Valanciunas, Delon Wright, CJ Miles and a 2024 second-round pick, but point guard Mike Conley remains for the time being. The 31-year-old isn’t a long-term fit alongside promising rookie Jaren Jackson Jr., which could convince Memphis to move on this offseason for the right price.
If the Pelicans continue to demand an arm and a leg for Davis (as well they should), the Lakers could attempt to acquire any of the aforementioned players for less than what they reportedly offered New Orleans.
Doing so might eliminate their ability to sign Davis as a free agent in 2020 (once he declines his player option), but they also can’t risk wasting another season with James.
All hope is not lost in L.A., but Johnson and Pelinka have major work to do this summer.