The Los Angeles Lakers have been at the center of just about every NBA rumor this summer, whether the subject is LeBron James and where he’ll go in free agency or Kawhi Leonard and his trade demand.
News broke Tuesday night that Leonard had met with Greg Popovich, prefers a trade to the Lakers over the LA Clippers, and that he’ll even tell interested teams he’ll head to the Lakers in free agency if they trade for him to dissuade other franchises from gambling they can keep him if they deal for him.
That latter part of that report might embolden those Lakers fans who have cried out for the team to not give up assets for Leonard, keep their young players and wait a year to sign him in free agency, but Sam Amick of USA Today reports that the Lakers might have a compelling reason not to be patient: Getting Leonard in the building could entice LeBron (emphasis mine):
If Leonard found his way to Laker Land, where he would likely make it clear that he’d re-sign as a free agent in the summer of 2019, it is widely believed that it would significantly increase the Lakers’ chances of landing LeBron James in free agency this summer. And Leonard, quite clearly, had decided it was time to move on after this season that was so full of mystery and tumult.
“Good player serves as better recruiting pitch for LeBron than unproven young talent” is hardly a mind-blowing headline for anyone who witnessed how James oversaw the overhaul of the Cleveland Cavaliers roster upon returning home in free agency, but the respect James has for Leonard might be more than he has even for most stars.
Remember this viral clip of James, not too happy that Leonard was coming back into the game?
There aren’t many players who can draw that level of respect and fear from arguably the greatest player ever, and James has admitted that Leonard is the player who defends him better than any other when asked during an appearance on the “Open Run” podcast (via ProBasketballTalk):
Kawhi Leonard. Kawhi Leonard, he’s solid. He’s solid, solid at that end of the floor. He’s very, very solid. I like him. I like the kid.
James doesn’t praise every player like that, and the fact that he’s been so open in his respect for Leonard’s abilities would seem to back up this rumor.
As James gets older, he can’t be a one-man engine dragging his entire team through the playoffs anymore like he was this season. He’ll need help, either with the best defensive assignments, secondary playmaking, or both. With Leonard on the team (presuming he’s healthy), James would get all of that and more. Plenty of people seem to forget that before his bizarre last calendar year, Leonard was a perennial MVP candidate, the type of player that almost never becomes available to any franchise. A type of player like James, in fact.
If the Lakers have the chance to unite the two this summer, they have to do it (again, presuming Leonard’s health checks out, something the Lakers are reportedly waiting on before rushing into a deal).
Leonard and James would be one of the most versatile, switchy and talented wing duos ever unleashed on the NBA, a team like the Avengers if they had two Hulks. Whether they’re support came in the form of Paul George, a gaggle of Lakers young guys or both, that would be a team instantly set up to go deep into the playoffs and at least challenge the Golden State Warriors.
Nothing is guaranteed in life, and certainly not the health of professional athletes. The Lakers could take this gamble and have it all fall apart like the Dwight Howard and Steve Nash teams from earlier this decade.
However, the chance to team up James and Leonard is too good to pass up, and a gamble the Lakers absolutely have to take if they have the opportunity. And because of James’ respect for Leonard, if they can just convince the Spurs to trade them their star, they just might have a chance to put together the NBA’s next superteam.
You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.