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The Lakers still reportedly believe they’re a ‘contender’ for Kawhi Leonard because LeBron James is recruiting him

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While many consider the pursuit of Kawhi Leonard a two-team race, the Lakers don’t think they’re out of it completely.

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NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

To this point, the consensus on Kawhi Leonard’s free agency has been that his decision will come down to two teams: The same Toronto Raptors organization that he just won a title with, and the Los Angeles Clippers — with the Lakers technically still running but mostly out of the picture.

During an episode of our own “Silver Screen & Roll Podcast,” Marc Stein of the New York Times said that, despite the aforementioned narrative, the Lakers still feel like they have a shot. And it all comes down to LeBron James:

“I know the Lakers want us to believe they’re still in there, and the Lakers do believe they’re still in there, and the Lakers have believed that since the regular season ended. So we’ll see if they can prove the skeptics wrong, but we don’t know what Kawhi is going to decide, we don’t know what KD is going to decide, and there is almost 200 free agents I think... and the party starts with those guys, and until they choose, we’re going to be on pins and needles.”

It remains refreshing to hear Stein admit to not knowing how this is going to play out rather than gas us up with some informed speculation based on incomplete reporting. That kind of analysis being somewhat posed as reporting has frustrated those who have paid attention to this story from the get-go, so it was nice to hear someone admit their ignorance to a certain extent.

Stein continued, detailing some of what he’s heard to this point:

“Because the Lakers are the only ones who’ve said that they’re a contender for Kawhi... And when I say ‘the Lakers believe,’ I think I’m phrasing it that way because that’s the vibe I get from other teams.

“If we could poll GMs and get their honest takes, I think it would be painted as a Raptors or Clippers two-team deal. But again, the Lakers, since the regular season ended, long before they had the Davis trade completed, in the midst of all the front office chaos, you would hear these rumbles of Lakers confidence. ‘We’re gonna be in there with Kawhi. We’re a contender with Kawhi, LeBron is recruiting Kawhi.’ You would hear these rumbles.”

Some of this sounds like irrational confidence that goes so far as to ignore the reality of the situation, but in fairness to the Lakers, no one really knows anything about what Leonard might be thinking:

“And again, I have not independently confirmed them, and I think a big issue here is that Kawhi’s camp is so buttoned up, there are very few people who have access to the inner sanctum of Team Kawhi, and I freely admit I’m not one of them. So it’s hard to know exactly what Kawhi thinks of the Lakers. We know he’s from Southern California, we know he has had strong pangs to go home for a long time, but I guess that’s long-winded way of saying that the only people who have expressed confidence in the Lakers’ ability to get him have something to do with the Lakers.”

So here’s the thing: If no one knows anything about what Leonard might be thinking (as seems to be the case to this point), technically, no team that was ever in the running should consider themselves completely out of it. So along those lines, perhaps that is the source of Lakers’ optimism on the Leonard front.

Another source of optimism has to be the amount of work James appears to be putting in as a recruiter. Combine that with Anthony Davis also participating in such efforts, and the Lakers really can make an appealing case to a player solely interested in winning — which isn’t often the case, but still.

Let’s say Leonard has already enjoyed enough success as the lone driving force of a championship-caliber team, but still wants the best chance he can give himself at winning his third ring. Wouldn’t teaming up with James and Davis (even without knowing how the rest of the roster is filled out) give him as good a chance (if not better) as any other team out there?

Here’s why else James’ involvement is so interesting: He likely knows as well as anyone that Leonard might not want to be seen as second fiddle on whichever team he signs with next. One would therefore imagine that James has worked that into part of his sales pitch to Leonard, right? Who knows, but it seems possible at the very least.

James only has two years left on his current deal, should he opt in to that fourth season. Leonard already has a case to make as the better overall player given the performance he just gave in the playoffs that just ended. If James tells Leonard that he would do all he could to prop up this year’s Finals MVP as the Lakers’ best player right now, let alone at the end of this contract, one would imagine that might go quite a ways to calm chemistry concerns.

All the above analysis is moot, though, until anyone gets any insight into what Leonard’s camp might be thinking, as Stein pointed out.

When most sensible Lakers fans show optimism in Leonard coming to team up with Davis and James, it isn’t necessarily that they feel confident he’s definitely coming — well, it shouldn’t be because of that, anyway. It’s more that with Leonard, given how little anyone seems to know, it doesn’t seem to make much sense to eliminate the Lakers from the running before the race even starts.

We’ll see how things shake out in July.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. Here is a list of every free agent credibly connected to the Lakers so far.