For months, there has been nonstop rumors about LeBron James and Paul George signing with the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency this summer. If that is not enough, now there is rampant speculation that they will be joined by San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, who reportedly asked to be traded.
No matter that all three play the same position — small forward — the Lakers’ front office is poised to go all-out to try to form the league’s new super team in Los Angeles. They’ll figure out how the pieces fit together later.
Although all the attention has been on James, George and Leonard, San Antonio could refuse to trade Leonard to the Lakers or to any Western Conference team. George could make the mistake of thinking he can win a title in Oklahoma City alongside Russell Westbrook, while collecting max money over five years from the Thunder.
Even if George and Leonard don’t join the Lakers, there are reports that James is in contact with other players around the league with whom he would like to play. The Lakers are probably the only team that can afford James’ salary and to sign another max player to his liking.
The logical inference is that James is talking to his friends on other teams about joining him on the Lakers.
Could president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka have a surprise or two in store this summer? Might other stars who have not been prominently mentioned be on their radar?
One unrestricted free agent who has been mostly overlooked is Chris Paul. It is presumed that he will re-sign with the Houston Rockets, where he was traded last summer. It would be ironic if Paul – whose trade to the Lakers years ago was infamously vetoed by then-commissioner David Stern – finally signed with the purple and gold all these years later.
James and Paul are close friends, and this is probably their last chance to play on the same team together. While it was speculated that they could join forces in Houston, reportedly James is not fond of the city and it would be extremely difficult for the Rockets to clear the cap space needed to sign him.
It is not far-fetched to think that James and Paul might join forces on the Lakers? This would not be an easy decision for Johnson and Pelinka, however.
Paul has a history of getting hurt at inopportune times throughout his career. It is risky enough possibly signing James to a four-year contract when he will turn 34 in December. Would the Lakers double down on the risk and do the same with a 33-year-old Paul?
Aside from free agency, a number of top NBA players are rumored to be on the trading block this offseason for the right price. If Johnson decides he is willing to part with any two of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball, and possibly Julius Randle in a sign and trade, there might be a number of options for the Lakers to pursue.
The likely trade partners are four teams facing uncertainty in light of how their seasons ended: Portland Trail Blazers, Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards and Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Trail Blazers are in flux because they have gone as far as they can as constructed. They had an excellent regular season and finished as the third seed in a very strong Western Conference. But then they were embarrassed in the first round of the playoffs when they were swept by the underdog New Orleans Pelicans.
Portland has two All-Star caliber players, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but little else. They have no realistic hope of signing a top free agent and they have few attractive assets to pull off a big trade – unless they include Lillard and/or McCollum in the package.
The Lakers are in need of a shooting guard. McCollum, who is 26, is just the kind of shooter the Lakers could use. He averaged 21.4 points per game this past season, made an excellent 39.7 percent of his 3-point shots, and connected on 83.6 percent from the free throw line.
Lakers fans are well-acquainted with Lillard, who has single-handedly beaten them in virtually every game they’ve played in recent seasons. He is the face of the Trail Blazers franchise and a first team All-NBA selection this past season.
But around the league he mostly flies under the radar because he plays in relative obscurity for a small market team. Lillard is so good that if he is available this summer, the Lakers would have to consider it.
Toronto has been a playoff team for several years but has gone as far as it is ever likely to go with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, both of whom signed large contract extensions not long ago. The Raptors grabbed the No. 1 in the Eastern Conference this season, only to be embarrassed by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs
As in Portland, there is talk that it may be time to shuffle the deck in Toronto. DeRozan, a former standout at Compton High and USC, will turn 29 before next season begins and is considered one of the top shooting guards in the league.
It should be noted, however, that DeRozan is below average from 3-point range. Lowry, 32, would make a terrific starter or backup for Ball at point guard but his high salary would be a factor if he is only going to be a reserve.
The Wizards have been led by John Wall and Bradley Beal the last few years, and while their roster looks good on paper, it has not translated into deep playoff runs. There were reports of friction between Wall and Beal midseason, and the team was actually better when Wall was out for an extended period with an injury.
The Wizards suffered a quiet, first round exit from the playoffs again this season. There is enough of a sample size to know they are in need of change, and there are ample reports that Wall or Beal could be dealt this summer.
Beal, who is a 24-year-old shooting guard, would be an excellent fit with the Lakers. He played in all 82 games this past season and averaged 22.6 points, 4.5 assists and 4.4 rebounds, while shooting 46 percent overall and 37.5 percent from 3-point range (for his career he has made three pointers at an excellent clip of 39.3 percent).
As for the Timberwolves, things looked bright a year ago when they got the jump on everyone and pulled off a surprising trade for Jimmy Butler to pair with former No. 1 draft picks and Rookies of the Year Karl Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins.
The Timberwolves did improve, made the eighth seed in the West, and then were quickly defeated by Houston in the first round of the playoffs. Wiggins was reportedly unhappy all year, and recently, there were reports that all is not well with Towns.
To make matters worse, Butler is be entering the final year of his contract and has already hinted that his stint in Minnesota might be a short one.
The Timberwolves will have to figure out if the situation can be salvaged, or more likely, who is going to depart and who they are going to build around. Should the situation be unsalvageable, any one or more of their three stars could be on the trading block.
Butler is one of the league’s best two guards, and Towns would fill the Lakers need big time for a center who can space the floor. Of the three, Wiggins is the one most likely to be traded. He signed a massive contract extension last summer but did not mesh with Butler.
Wiggins is normally an excellent scorer, and if they want, the Lakers could probably get him in exchange for only one member of their young core.
If L.A. is willing to part with good, young players to bring in a superstar, they may find several teams willing to be accommodating. Top players showed last summer that they have the clout to force a trade if they put their mind to it.
A number of stars will likely change teams this summer, and it remains to be seen if the Lakers will sit it out like they did last year or dive in and make something happen even if it means parting with Randle, Ingram, Kuzma and/or Ball.
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