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Are LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard using the Lakers for leverage in free agency?

Do LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard really want to come to the Lakers in free agency, or could they be leveraging L.A.’s interest for their own gain?

NBA All-Star Game 2016 Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The NBA Finals have been over for two weeks, and the Lakers have already been involved in too many offseason rumors to count. But far from the dream scenario of Los Angeles wooing two max-level free agents, it seems quite plausible that players around the league plan on taking advantage of the Lakers’ interest in them to secure contracts from other teams.

Say hello to your Los Angeles Leverages.

Using L.A. as a leverage play is a tried and true practice that football fans are particularly familiar with. In the 20 years that Los Angeles didn’t have an NFL team, nearly half of the franchises in the league were rumored to move to L.A. at some point, leading to the construction of eight new stadiums and renovations to four others.

Smaller markets are always afraid of bigger ones, and we may be seeing the Lakers used in a similar fashion in NBA negotiations, starting with the King himself.

LeBron James has owned free agency every time he has chosen to the enter the open market, causing the rest of the league’s gears to grind to a halt until he makes his decision. But unlike in 2010 and 2014, when several suitors were available to offer LeBron a max contract, his pool of options is a little bit shallower this year. The Lakers stand as one of a few options who could sign James and pair him with another superstar, alongside a bevy of young talent.

The threat of LeBron leaving in free agency has already motivated the Cavaliers to make a series of win-now trade deadline moves that inflated the team’s luxury tax bill and saddled them with onerous contracts going forward. If James convinces the Cavs that he will leave for Los Angeles unless the team improves further, they could sacrifice even more of their future – is that Collin Sexton’s music? – to endear themselves to LeBron.

As long as James is associated with the Lakers in free agency rumors, his departure looms as a possibility. That means Cleveland is obligated to do whatever it takes to retain the franchise’s greatest player, and LeBron can get some more help now even if he never planned on leaving the Cavaliers in the first place.

Kawhi Leonard’s camp also seems to be taking of advantage of L.A.’s interest in the former Finals MVP. Leonard reportedly wants a trade from San Antonio, and all indications are that he prefers joining the Lakers as his next team. ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote Wednesday, “There are deep suspicions that Leonard has already decided he wants to play for the Lakers.”

It definitely does not behoove the Spurs to reveal that Leonard wishes to go to the Lakers, because it depresses his trade value. However, Leonard does benefit from this information being exposed.

Firstly, his expressed desire to leave for Los Angeles can help cajole San Antonio into offering him a designated player extension, which gives Leonard the most possible money on his next contract. Secondly, if he actually does want to leave, having the Lakers exist as a potential bogeyman reduces the amount of assets a team would have to surrender to acquire him from the Spurs.

Even if Kawhi doesn’t want to come to L.A., simply suggesting that he does diminishes his trade value. That would allow him to go to a team that might not have top-shelf assets, or it could keep his next team more competitive after completing a trade.

Either way, Leonard ends up with a better situation, either monetarily or in terms of the roster he’s on, but that roster definitely doesn’t have to be the Lakers.

Even a lower-level free agent like DeMarcus Cousins, who the Lakers have been linked to in the past, may also be able to extract a larger deal from the New Orleans Pelicans by threatening to head west.

There has been so much smoke around Los Angeles this offseason that it’s okay to hope there is some fire. However, it also shouldn't come as a surprise if the primary accomplishment of the Lakers offseason is securing the bag for players who never even don the purple and gold.

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