That’s the kind of star-studded scenario of which Lakers fans have dreamed since last making the playoffs five years ago, and which the rest of the NBA has feared. While it’s a long shot, such a partnership is possible if it’s what the players involved really want.
Let’s run through the possibilities — and the challenges.
How the Lakers could make it work financially
The Lakers signing George and James, both of whom can become unrestricted free agents if they decline 2018-19 player options, is easy enough. They can create sufficient cap room merely by waiving forward Luol Deng and stretching his contract, then renouncing the rights to their free agents.
Adding Leonard to the mix makes the math trickier — even before we account for the fact that he’s still under contract to the San Antonio Spurs, who would have to sign off on a trade. (More on that in a bit.)
Though Leonard is making substantially less than the current max salary at $20.1 million for 2018-19, combining his salary with max ones for LeBron (an estimated $35.4 million) and George (estimated $30.3 million because he’s two years shy of the experience necessary for the largest max bracket for players with 10-plus years in the league) puts the Lakers over $85 million in salary without considering any other players or the remaining amount of Deng’s stretched salary.
That tight math makes it all but imperative the Lakers send Deng to San Antonio in a Leonard trade before signing George and James. How might that work?
Kawhi must ask for trade to L.A.
Timing is the biggest challenge to the Lakers pulling off a big three this summer. Any trade they make for a high-paid veteran like Leonard assuredly needs to be done before they sign free agents, because otherwise they’ll already have waived Deng and be unable to include him as matching salary in a trade.
As ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday, the Spurs and Leonard plan to meet sooner rather than later to discuss his future in San Antonio and a possible super-maximum designated veteran extension worth an estimated $219 million. If that offer doesn’t come, or if Leonard wants out anyway, he’d have to inform the Spurs quickly that they should trade him — and, in this scenario, that he’d be willing to re-sign only with the Lakers, limiting his value to other teams.
Presumably, a Lakers package would be built around one of the last two No. 2 overall picks — either Lonzo Ball or Brandon Ingram. Just how realistic a Leonard trade is depends in large part on how San Antonio values those two developing prospects. From a financial perspective, including Ball gives the Lakers slightly more flexibility because he’ll count $7.5 million against the cap next season as compared to Ingram’s $5.8 million.
Sending back Ball or Ingram alone probably wouldn’t get a deal done with the Spurs. Since Deng must be included in this version of a deal, the Lakers are going to need to add more value. That could mean parting with All-Rookie first-team pick Kyle Kuzma, whose ability to create shots is less valuable on a team with three superstars.
Let’s say the Spurs are willing to do Ball, Deng and Kuzma for Leonard, pivoting to a younger roster built around the two second-year players plus point guard Dejounte Murray. As I outlined in our roundup of Leonard trade possibilities, the two teams could make that trade now by including the Orlando Magic (or another team with cap space or a trade exception of sufficient size) to take on Joffrey Lauvergne‘s salary for matching purposes.
Who would the Lakers have around the big three?
Assuming the cap comes in as projected at $101 million and both James and George sign for the full max, making the trade outlined here for Leonard would leave the Lakers with just six players under contract: their new big three, Ingram, 3-and-D wing Josh Hart and this year’s first-round pick via the Cleveland Cavaliers (No. 25 overall). The Lakers also have the 47th overall pick in the second round.
So needless to say, the Lakers would have a lot of work to do filling out their roster and only the room midlevel exception (projected at $4.4 million) to offer free agents more than the veteran’s minimum. The good news is their superstars would give them incredible flexibility.
I’d envision the Lakers starting Ingram at point guard — a role he filled at times last season when Ball was injured — and having him share playmaking responsibilities with the newcomers. That would produce a lineup with the 6-foot-7 Leonard as its shortest player, offering tremendous defensive flexibility and the ability to switch nearly any screen. While all four players would perhaps be considered small forwards in a vacuum, all have the ability to defend any position 1-4.
The Lakers would want a center capable of fitting in with a switching defense, which might lead them to pursue Nerlens Noel with the room midlevel. Noel, a client of the agency run by LeBron associate Rich Paul (Klutch Sports Group), might not get much larger offers than $4.4 million this summer and the Lakers have shown interest in the past. Wojnarowski reported last winter that they had initial discussions with the Dallas Mavericks on swapping Julius Randle — whose rights the Lakers would have to forfeit to clear cap space — for Noel.
To fill out the bench, the Lakers would be relying on veterans taking discounts to play in L.A. and have a chance to contend. This is the summer to do that, however, with limited cap space available around the league. The Lakers would also benefit from the ability to keep at least one All-Star on the court at all times, similar to what the Warriors have done after adding Kevin Durant.
This hypothetical becoming reality is contingent on the players involved — and the Spurs. George and James are free to sign anywhere and Leonard may prefer to wait out the possibility of the super max in San Antonio than try to return to Southern California. And even if Leonard asks out and tries to force his way to L.A., the Spurs could always call his bluff and keep him or trade him to another team willing to gamble on re-signing Leonard, as the Oklahoma City Thunder did trading for George a year ago.
Still, there is a realistic path to the Lakers creating a big three this summer.