Paul George, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard teaming up on the Los Angeles Lakers is the natural conclusion of the last several years that saw fans of the team photoshopping all the NBA’s star players into purple and gold instead of watching the often-awful basketball team on the court.
Those digitally-rendered dreams finally appear to have a chance of becoming a reality, and in more rapid fashion than even the most optimistic fan — or probably the franchise itself — would have thought possible this summer. With Leonard demanding a trade and preferring Los Angeles joining the endless churn of the rumor mill alongside whispers of James’ intention to head to the Lakers and George’s reported dreams of ending up there, it seems like a return to contention is finally within L.A.’s grasp.
But things might not be that simple. This isn’t an issue of money, the Lakers can afford to take on George, Leonard and James (as expertly detailed by Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report).
Put simply, the Lakers essentially need to trade Luol Deng as part of their deal for Leonard or to another team along with a young player like Brandon Ingram and renounce Julius Randle’s cap hold. It’s slightly more complex than that, but the Lakers can make this NBA 2K with trade override on vision of a team happen, at least monetarily.
Timing-wise is where bringing the NBA’s nightmare of superteam to life starts to get a little bit more difficult. The NBA draft is tomorrow, which means the Lakers’ draft assets that they could theoretically deal for Leonard become actual players instead of the intangible future draft steals that the Spurs surely think they could make with the same picks. The Spurs have also shown no inclination to rush a deal for Leonard, and the only firm deadline they have is the trade deadline in February.
Speculatively, there also exists the possibility that this trade demand is simply a poorly-executed ploy from Leonard’s camp to get the Spurs to offer a supermax contract they might not have been willing to without seeing if Leonard was healthy.
Whatever the case may be, the Spurs have always done things methodically, and it’s safe to assume this situation is no different. Maybe doubly so because of how unmotivated they reportedly are to facilitate a deal that sends Leonard to the Lakers.
The Lakers might be working against a different deadline. Free agency is July 1, and if the team is going to be pitching James and George on joining up, it’s unlikely either will want to sign on the dotted line without another star in place. That star could be Leonard if the Lakers are able to move quickly on a trade, but if they can’t, then the first domino in a line of them working against the front office’s superteam dreams falls down. The question is, will it knock over another one?
Before the Leonard situation came to a boiling point, James and George were always the tandem at the center of those oft-rumored free agency plans, but that was before reports were starting to filter out that George might have a hard time leaving Russell Westbrook and is happy with the Thunder. As captured by commenter ACfromCA in a FanPost, George’s appreciation of Westbrook has been public for a while:
On their overall partnership, April 28, 2018: “Our friendship and our bond we’ve created together is more important to me, and that’s what I truly care about. Me knowing Paul, like I said before, he definitely wants to be here. Through free agency or for any player, it’s always a decision up to them what’s best for their family.”
On Paul George’s All-Star snub, January 24, 2018: “Guy leads the league in steals, competes every night, top two at his position. Don’t make any sense, regardless of anything else,” Westbrook continued. “If you’re going by all-stars, there are certain all-stars in this league. Everybody’s not an all-star. Just because you get voted in doesn’t mean you’re an all-star. I just think it’s outrageous. But you know, it is what it is.”
Paul himself, on a shifting situation, February 5, 2018: “I obviously would have loved to have gone home. That was ideal when it was that time. But now, being here and playing alongside Russ, playing alongside Melo, I’ve built a real brotherhood with those guys. If we’re here right now, then where can we be next year? Where can we be the year after that?”
What if George is happy with his fellow Southern Californian in Oklahoma City? What if he’s content to let Westbrook serve as the Batman to his Robin rather than risk uprooting himself to a new situation and all the pressure that comes with going home to the second-largest media market in the country, a place where the TMZ reporters that annoy him so will flock to him like gnats?
If George is dithering, and Leonard isn’t on the roster yet, is James really going to sign on for a season with the young core and Luol Deng? As promising as the Lakers looked that year, unless they could find another star to lure him — either by flipping young players or with their cap space — it seems unlikely that James would want to join on by himself.
Visions of James barreling to the basket as George and Leonard space the floor on a wing-heavy team that can switch basically everything defensively, among other basketball draws, is why the Lakers absolutely have to do their best to make it happen. If they had unlimited time, recent reports make it seem like they almost assuredly could.
However, right now the Lakers don’t appear to have an endless shot clock. They might be working against a very harsh buzzer, and their offseason looks like an opposite day game of musical chairs in which no one wants to be the first one to sit down, which could leave the Lakers on the outside of the circle when the music stops if their hoped-for big three can’t get in sync.
The Lakers’ offseason game of dominoes could work for or against them, but if one of the three players they’re after falls elsewhere, it could knock the others out of their grasp as well.
You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.