On July 9, 1968, the Lakers traded for reigning MVP Wilt Chamberlain, who was eager to leave the 76ers to play in Los Angeles. If the technology had existed back then, Wilt the Stilt would have been photoshopped into a Lakers jersey months before the trade, and Woj’s father would have broken the news via telegraph.
Since then, Lakers fans always assume that any available superstar could -- and should -- be heading to Los Angeles, and often, they’re right.
Since Wilt, the team has attracted a ton of stars. Seven years after landing the Big Dipper, the Lakers got Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from the Bucks. In 1996, they signed in free agency another all-time great center, Shaquille O’Neal. In the next decade, they got Pau Gasol, and even in the fallow period of the 2010s, the Lakers still brought in future Hall of Famers Dwight Howard, Steve Nash, LeBron James and Anthony Davis — and barring a David Stern veto, they would have also had Chris Paul. Clearly, stars want to play in Hollywood, and the Lakers have a unique ability to make it happen — often with an assist from Rich Paul and Klutch Sports.
And the Western Conference favorites -- who report to training camp in the Bubble in Orlando on Thursday -- are poised to load up again.
Last summer, the Lakers not only traded for Davis, but they structured the deal to leave room for another max contract. Presumably this was designated for Kawhi Leonard, who, unbeknownst to them, was teaming with Paul George on the Clippers. Instead, the Lakers spread the money around, spending the most on Danny Green and filling out the rest of the roster with a passel of veterans. This offseason they won’t have the space for a max deal, but the Lakers have plenty of options. Again, don’t bet against the recruiting powers of LeBron James coupled with the Laker Girls.
Here are the tools the Lakers can work with this fall:
The Lakers make a ton of money, and LeBron James turns 36 this year. They’ll be spending freely because their title window is right now.
Given the team’s success and uncertainty of the post-COVID market, let's assume the Lakers will pick up all the player options for 2020-21, including Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley, JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo. Anthony Davis will sign for the max, although it’s possible he takes a one-year deal with a player option. Next year, with 10 years of experience, he can sign for 35 percent of the salary cap instead of 30 percent, as well as hope the cap rises with the NBA playing a full season.
The mid-level exception should be able to get them a pretty good player, but this is the Lakers, and they don’t settle for pretty good. So to get a star, they can dangle Kuzma and the No. 29 pick. They do need to send out 80 percent of the salary they get back, which sadly rules out a banana boat reunion with Chris Paul and his $41.3 million.
If they packaged this year’s pick with Kuzma, Bradley, KCP, Rondo, Quinn Cook and rookie Talen Horton-Tucker, they could get a guy who makes about $30 million. If they include McGee, that goes up to $35 million –- which is just enough to land Mike Conley, the best NBA player to never make an All-Star team.
If Utah deals Rudy Gobert, or just needs to stay under the luxury tax, the Jazz might want to ditch Conley, who would thrive in Los Angeles. While Jrue Holiday’s salary fits and he may not be in the Pelicans’ long-term plans, it’s hard to imagine that Kuzma, a late pick, and salary relief are enough to get him, especially since they already have three Lakers first-round picks. Similarly, it’s probably not enough assets to pry Kyle Lowry away from Toronto, but with every team’s uncertain finances, you can’t rule it out.
More realistically, the Lake Show could avoid ditching rotation players and get a slightly cheaper stud. Ideally, they’d add a three-and-D guy, but with their interior defense and LeBron’s passing, the “three” part is most important. That’s why they should aggressively go after Chicago's Zach LaVine, who will be making $19.5 million the next two seasons. He’s only 25, shoots 38 percent from deep and the former UCLA star is a great athlete, important for the league’s second-oldest roster.
Chicago’s new front office likely wants to clean house, and the Lakers could give the Bulls a pick, an intriguing young talent in Kuzma and expiring contracts that would give Chicago tons of cap space in 2021. Let’s face it: If the Bulls were serious about competing next season, they would have fired Jim Boylen already.
Whom else might they target? Tim Hardaway Jr. was great for Dallas last season, and his contract is expiring, though the Mavericks may be loath to help a conference rival. If Orlando's Evan “Don’t Google” Fournier picks up his player option, he’s a great fit alongside LeBron. And while it didn’t work out the first time alongside LeBron in 2017-18, Detroit's Derrick Rose would really help L.A.’s ball handling and shot creation.
When it comes to signings, the Lakers' options really depend on the market. Could they steal Markieff Morris from the Clippers by offering the full mid-level exception and a chance to play next to his twin brother again? Would prodigal sixth man Jordan Clarkson return to the fold, two years after the Lakers traded him to Cleveland to open up the cap space to steal LeBron from Cleveland? What about South Beach-loving Goran Dragic of the Heat? There’s not going to be a lot of money out there in free agency, so GM LeBron James, er, Rob Pelinka, should have a lot of choices, especially at the biannual and veterans minimum. A Tristan Thompson reunion? Mo Harkless? Or even the NBA’s most underrated sharpshooter, E'Twaun Moore?
Apologies to the rest of the league, but the Lakers are going to load up, because they always do. Though it might seem impossible that the Lakers can add a star to the best superstar duo in the league, they’ve been doing it for at least 52 years, and they just might do it for 52 more.
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