In just about any season, the Los Angeles Lakers would jump at the opportunity to acquire a player as talented as Kawhi Leonard. Add to that the pressures of expectations that come with also signing LeBron James, and of course fans would assume a Leonard trade would be almost inevitable.
That isn’t how things played out, though, and when LeBron was asked whether he was okay how it went down, the exchange between him and Rachel Nichols of ESPN was pretty telling of where his head’s at as he prepares for his first of at least three seasons with the Lakers:
Nichols: When you look at that roster though, you’re the only All-Star on there. You could have told the Lakers, “Hey I’d be willing to come, but please do what it takes to get Kawhi Leonard here too.” Why didn’t you want to do that?
James: Because I love the young guys that they have, and I’m not trying to force my hand in no way, shape or form. I believe Rob [Pelinka] and Magic [Johnson] and Jeanie [Buss] have done an unbelievable job of reshaping what the organization should be, keeping Dr. Buss’ dreams and what he was all about, to keep that going. I feel like they know what’s best for the team and I wanted to be a piece to continue that motion of being back to a championship franchise where they should be.
There are a couple factors that I think get overlooked a little too often in discussing whether the Lakers should have moved a chunk of their young assets to acquire Leonard.
First and foremost, the San Antonio Spurs set the price at a place they knew the Lakers would never match. Their reported demand of Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma, two first-round picks and two pick swaps would have absolutely gutted the franchise of any assets they could use to further improve the team.
Which brings us to the second factor at play in how the Lakers handled this situation: The Golden State Warriors are simply too good to take shortcuts to compete with.
Yes, the Lakers would be formidable with the tandem of James, Leonard and whatever veterans might join using the Lakers’ remaining cap space — which would be fairly minimal given what the two superstars are going to be making.
In order to compete with Golden State, the Lakers have to find value that exceeds their contracts, which usually comes in the form of younger players on their rookie deals. The Lakers wouldn’t be able to take advantage of that value if said players are all moved in a Kawhi trade.
That LeBron is on the same page with the Lakers in all this is, quite frankly, the only thing that matters. Now, maybe that changes over the course of the season after he actually sees the young core he mentioned above — and even the Lakers know they could be a different team by the trade deadline — but for now, this is absolutely the best path forward if the Lakers want to completely maximize their assets.