As Tom Petty said, the waiting is the hardest part. During a wild and crazy first day of 2019 NBA free agency (that really began the day before… what tampering rules?), over $3 billion in contracts were given out to players like Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, D’Angelo Russell, and many more.
As the NBA reshaped itself, the Los Angeles Lakers and their $32 million in cap space sat off to the side, content to wait for Kawhi Leonard to decide if he wants to play basketball for them.
The team’s roster currently has just three players on it: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Kyle Kuzma. With a roster that needs to be filled out, each name that commits elsewhere is one less left in the pool for the Lakers to ultimately pick from.
And yet, the Lakers are playing their hand perfectly. Even if they don’t land Leonard.
As unsettling as it is watching even role players like Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverley, Terrence Ross, and others sign elsewhere while the Lakers roster sits empty, a chance at Leonard is worth it.
If owner Jeanie Buss, general manager Rob Pelinka, and the rest of the front office can find a way to convince Leonard to join James and Davis, they have the potential to create something historic. On paper, they would be the most talented Big 3 ever assembled, and would instantly be the favorites to win the 2020 NBA Finals.
If you’re going to gamble, that’s not a bad outcome to do it on.
Furthermore, being forced to sit on the sidelines for a bit could actually help to save the Lakers from themselves with their other free agent targets, regardless of what Leonard decides.
This year, there was plenty of cap space to go around but not nearly enough max-level free agents to spend it on. What that results in is teams with cap room feeling the pressure to spend their cash somewhere and as a result, they overpay role players. The Lakers — based on the sheer number of roster spots they need to fill — can’t afford to overpay anyone, even if they do end up taking the ‘depth’ approach by spreading their money around in the event that Leonard turns them down.
For example, Ariza is a great veteran mentor but at 34 years old, should he be eating up $25 million over two years? Matching that deal would have chopped off a little over a third of the team’s available cap space. Likewise, Al Horford is getting a four-year deal with around $100 million from the Philadelphia 76ers. Horford will help them for the 2019-20 NBA season but that’s a contract that could be looking rough in a year or two and for the Lakers, it would have eaten up almost all of their cap room.
These are good players, but whether or not they will present much of a return on investment is questionable at best. The Lakers know too well the cost of overpaying free agents out of desperation after the contracts of Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng are still used as cautionary tales around the league.
Instead, while the players thought to be the best of the non-All-Star players fly off the market at inflated rates, the Lakers get to watch the available cap room around the league shrink while they await Leonard’s decision. With 40% of the league hitting free agency this year, there won’t be enough money for everyone and eventually, the frenzy will die down.
That’s when ideally with Leonard on board, the Lakers can find bargains. As the money dries up, free agents will begin to prioritize other things more like playing time, ability to win, weather, and more. In those areas, the Lakers will be tough to beat and as a result, they should get a lot of attention from the free agents still standing when the cap space well runs dry.
Leonard presents an opportunity for greatness; to build a team around three of the top seven All-Star players in the league. Those kinds of situations don’t come along often and when they do, the best teams aren’t afraid to shoot their shot — even if it takes a lot of patience to do it.