The Los Angeles Lakers are an incredible team. Boasting the best record in the Western Conference and second-best record in the entire NBA at 41-12, there is little dispute that Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Co. are at the very least one of the best teams in the NBA.
They also had the potential to be more.
Over the summer, the Lakers were one of three teams (along with the Toronto Raptors and LA Clippers) with a chance to sign Kawhi Leonard, the best free agent on the market. They did everything they could to land him, from expanding their trade for Davis to give themselves enough cap space to offer Leonard a maximum contract, to pushing back nearly all of their free agent agreements while waiting on him to make a decision.
We all know how that went. Leonard’s talent made the rewards that would come with signing him worth the risk of missing out, but when he chose the Clippers, it still erased a chance for the Lakers to assemble a legitimate superteam, and maybe the best three players to ever play together.
They still turned out pretty great, but Leonard might have made them unstoppable.
And even if he did try to help recruit Leonard, Davis said at All-Star Weekend on Saturday that Leonard going elsewhere at the very least did save the NBA season from feeling like a foregone conclusion (via Kyle Goon of the Orange County Register):
Q: Do you let yourself think about what might have been if Kawhi had decided to be a Laker this summer?
A: “No. I don’t like Kawhi... No, I’m kidding. Kawhi is my guy. I just saw him over here... At the time when it was going down, before he decided, you think about what the team could be, the defensive mindset we could have, the scoring ability we could have. Me him and ‘Bron is obviously something that teams would fear, but all I’ll say is that I think he made the league interesting. He made the league fun. And that’s the great thing about sports. You never know what’s going to happen, and now we kind of have this, as you guys would say quote unquote ‘rivalry’ in L.A., and so it’s fun.
“Obviously you think about what could have been, but he made a decision for him and his family and he’s still my guy. I’m still going to talk to him, but when we jump between the lines it’s going to be competitive and it’s going to be fun, as you guys have seen the last two games.”
The Lakers have lost those last two games, something that almost assuredly would not have happened were Leonard on their team, instead of needing to find an answer for him defensively.
Still, while most Lakers fans probably wouldn’t mind if the rest of the league was bored if it meant getting to raise banner No. 17 at the end of the year, Davis has a point. This season would be far less interesting as a whole if the Lakers were the de-facto favorites and essentially a guarantee to win the title, health and luck permitting.
As we’ve seen with the Golden State Warriors in 2016 and 2019, sometimes health and luck don’t permit a championship — and nothing is ever a guarantee — but this season is objectively more interesting the whole way through because we get to watch the Lakers try to solve problems that would not have seemed so significant if Leonard were on board.
And the benefit of all this, even if it makes a title more difficult, is that no one will ever get to say the Lakers didn’t earn this championship if they win it. Between the Milwaukee Bucks and Clippers — at minimum — the Lakers will have to face adversity and figure out how to solve problems on any title run they do or don’t make. Every game is going to feel like the stakes are higher, and any victory will be all the more sweet because of how much harder it was to fight for it.
We’ll see if the Lakers get there. It won’t be as easy without Leonard, but it will feel a lot more legitimate if it happens.