It has not been a good run for the Lakers of late. The schedule and a combination of injuries have conspired against them. Lonzo Ball went down with a sprained ankle and is expected to be out four to six weeks. LeBron James strained his groin on Christmas Day and has missed more than a month. Over that stretch, the Lakers dipped below the cutoff line for the Western Conference playoffs. Now they’re looking up at eight other teams, including the crosstown Clippers, who are two games ahead of them for that final spot. That kind of free fall might make some teams panic—particularly because time is in increasingly short supply.
“The thought has crossed my mind, of course,” Luke Walton admitted after a recent practice when I asked whether he sweats the standings and, more importantly, the calendar. It is almost February. The Lakers have won just six of their past 17 without LeBron, and only 31 games remain. But while it’s natural enough to have creeping concerns, Walton said he tries “as quickly as I can” to “get it out of my head.” He’d rather expend the energy on things he can control—adjustments, what to focus on in practice, rotations, and the like. It all sounded sensible enough in the moment.
“Looking at the calendar and all that stuff,” he said, “is just wasted time.”
He had a point. Past tense. Now the Lakers don’t have a choice but to stare at the calendar. Rich Paul and Klutch Sports made sure of that. What was once just widely whispered about is now an official, full-throated declaration: Anthony Davis wants out of New Orleans. That new reality probably has every team in the league scrambling to come up with a trade package, including the Lakers. Especially the Lakers.
Whenever a superstar becomes available, we almost expect the Lakers to have the right of first refusal. And no matter how many LaMarcus Aldridges or Paul Georges have spurned them, we’ve been conditioned to believe that every high-profile player is smitten with the Lakers and will eventually pull on the purple and gold. That’s how it appeared the last time a superstar was on his way out of New Orleans. Back in 2011, it seemed certain that Chris Paul would be traded to the Lakers. There was a life-isn’t-fair feeling of resignation to it. Of course CP and Kobe would team up and the Lakers would rise again.
Paul did land in Los Angeles—just not with the Lakers. Then-commissioner David Stern famously vetoed a proposed deal that would have sent Paul to the Lakers then approved a separate transaction that rerouted CP to the Clippers. Since then, the Lakers have suffered what must be a strange indignity for them: watching the kid brother Clippers, a team they long dismissed and derided, stiff-arm them in the standings for the better part of a decade. Sure, they signed LeBron this offseason, but by now there’s plenty of proof that the Lakers can’t stomp their feet and get their way simply because they’re the Lakers.
Conventional wisdom holds that the Celtics have the best collection of assets to pursue Davis, with their allotment of quality young talent and as many as four picks in the upcoming draft. The problem is they can’t currently crack open their war chest to pry away AD because of a CBA rule that prohibits teams from having more than one player on a designated rookie extension contract. Kyrie Irving and Davis both fall under that provision, but that will change July 1 when Irving becomes a free agent. Until then, the Celtics are out—which gives the Lakers a head start to be all in.
Between now and the February 7 trade deadline, there’s a chance to beat Boston to the market. That’s also true for lots of other teams. Not surprisingly, the Knicks are reportedly interested and could potentially dangle Kristaps Porzingis, Kevin Knox, and other assets along with their upcoming first-round pick which, if they continue to tank, should be tasty. The Bucks, Raptors, Sixers, and Nuggets are also rumored/reported to be kicking the tires on trade offers, but the Lakers are still in the driver’s seat. They have a host of young players on rookie contracts, and they own all their picks (save a 2019 second-rounder that’s owed to either Sacramento or Atlanta). More importantly, the Lakers have a built-in advantage. Rich Paul represents AD. Paul represents LeBron. Davis evidently wants to land on “a team that allows him a chance to win consistently and compete for a championship.” LeBron and the Lakers have done that separately in the past, and they could use some help doing that together in the future. Like James before him, Davis signaled his love for Los Angeles when he bought a home here last summer. (Just one, though. He didn’t double up like LeBron.) And according to ESPN, Paul and Davis aren’t exactly being subtle about how they want this to play out. They are expected to “deliver word throughout the league that Davis’s preferred destination is the Lakers” and he should be considered a rental player through 2020 if any other organization acquires him. Rich Paul is flexing so hard and so publicly right now that he’s in danger of ripping his shirt clean off, Hulk Hogan–style.
As you might expect, the Pelicans aren’t thrilled with any of this. They issued a statement saying the organization is “disappointed” in Davis’s decision but insisted moving him would happen “on our terms and our timeline” while vowing that “it will not be dictated by those outside our organization.” If that wasn’t spicy enough, the Pelicans also contacted the league and requested that the tampering rules be strictly enforced, which led to Davis getting a $50,000 fine. He can afford it. This is already so juicy and we’ve only squeezed a few days’ worth of drama out of it.
Before the season began, Magic Johnson and James said all the right things about how it would take the Lakers time to piece all their players together and cautioned everyone, including themselves, to be patient. There was a constant push and pull between wanting to win now with James (who just turned 34 in December) and continuing the development of core young players like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and others. More than once this season, LeBron called the season “a process” and said he knew what he was getting himself into. Maybe they actually believed that then, but the thinking has clearly shifted now. It had to. That’s what happens when Paul publicly invites other teams to bake a cake with a file in it and break Davis out of Pelicans prison. It won’t be easy, and it will definitely be costly, but imagine if the Lakers are the ones to spring Davis; he and LeBron could go on quite a run.
This is a critical period for the Lakers. This league is about star stacking, and the front office surely knows what the standings continue to reinforce: the Lakers need more to compete. Not just for a title, and not just in the Western Conference, but also and interestingly in their own city.
David Stern’s heavy-handed, father-knows-best routine aside, the history books hold that the Clippers “won” the Chris Paul trade. It kicked off the Lob City era and made the Clippers something they hadn’t been in years: relevant—in the league and, in what’s historically been an even bigger challenge for them, Los Angeles. That was fun for a while, and it made for a good story, too—the city’s second sons being elevated to the best team in town. Except that blockbuster deal didn’t ultimately act as the catalyst for leaguewide legitimacy that they hoped for. Despite having Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and JJ Redick, the Clippers never got out of the second round of the playoffs, and their overall profile didn’t change all that much, either. In the end, they were a good-not-great team of players who still got booed at Dodgers games.
That last provincial custom might always be true (L.A. is a weird place), but after only recently detonating that particular team, the Clippers are once again poised to load their roster with stars. And unlike when they traded for CP, they don’t need to get in on the AD sweepstakes to do it. While the Lakers try to maneuver for top-tier talent like Davis, the Clippers are already in terrific position to make their own seismic acquisitions. The Lakers have LeBron and the organization’s storied history, and there’s real cachet that goes with the combined power of those two things. But purely on paper, there’s a case to be made that the Clippers are in a better spot when it comes to potential roster construction and how they can sell themselves as an organization. The two franchises have never had a real rivalry, but as they get set to play each other Thursday evening at Staples Center, I wonder whether the dawn of an actual and protracted battle for basketball supremacy (if not necessarily popularity) in L.A. might finally be upon us.
Not even a year ago, Clippers president Lawrence Frank said the franchise wanted to “build something sustainable” in order to “be really good for a really long time.” That sounded hopeful and universal at first. What team wouldn’t want that? But in retrospect, it seems prescient. The Clippers have a deep roster that has kept them in the Western Conference playoff picture, but they have only five players with guaranteed contracts on the books for next season (Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Jerome Robinson). They are projected to have north of $50 million in cap space available, which puts them on a clear path to free up enough money to court two max-money players. (It should be noted, though, that Tobias Harris, who has been perhaps their best player, will be a free agent this summer and is in line to get paid.)
“Within our plan, there’s multiple different pathways,” Frank told the media last April. He added that they “spent a great deal of time on what it’s going to take to be a championship-contending team, the types of players you need on those teams, and we’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on how we’re going to acquire them.”
It’s no secret that the Clippers are interested in signing Kawhi Leonard and/or Kevin Durant this offseason. The organization has taken some extraordinarily thirsty steps on that front, including dispatching employees to somewhere between 50 to 75 percent of Leonard’s games. Frank has served as one of those emissaries himself—though Leonard was apparently unaware of the overture. And leaving nothing to chance, the Clippers even fired former TV color analyst Bruce Bowen for being mean to Kawhi about sitting out too much last season. You can’t be too careful about these things. My guess is the Clippers have a voodoo doll for all of KD’s perceived grievances and they jab at it on his behalf now and then just to be safe.
In addition to money and roster flexibility, the Clippers can also offer prospective superstar free agents something the Lakers can’t: the opportunity to be a rock star in Southern California without being the backup singer in LeBron’s band. As Durant said in a stunning statement in December, playing with the greatest talent of his generation comes with a cost that not everyone is willing to pay. If the Clippers can convince Kawhi or KD or both to come to L.A., the Lakers would be faced with a genuine intercity fight on the court and the marquee.
It’s all added incentive for the Lakers to act sooner rather than later. If they wait, they’ll only have seven tradable contracts (not including LeBron) this offseason, when they’re projected to have around $36 million in cap room. They could add a third max player this summer, but they’d be forced to sign that mystery free agent first and then trade for Davis. They’d also have to clear out the rest of the roster to make the necessary financial space. But while we’re down this theoretical rabbit hole, what if that third max player is from a previous relationship that LeBron might want to ... rewind? It’s not inconceivable.
LeBron’s message to Kyrie— LALeBron (@LALeBron23) January 25, 2019
“I know you’re with him now but soon you will be mine, If I could bring it back, I’ll probably press rewind" pic.twitter.com/kmI0efMJLt
Still, that’s a lot of moving parts for a risky gambit that’s far from guaranteed to work. We shouldn’t forget that the Lakers were a lock to land Paul George—until they weren’t. Watching PG pick OKC over L.A. should be the only lesson the Lakers need to learn about the complications of securing superstars, especially through the fickle free-agent market.
This period before the trade deadline represents the Lakers’ best chance to make a massive move and alter their fortunes—though they’ll likely have to overpay to do so. The Los Angeles Times reported that any opening Lakers package would have to include Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Ivica Zubac, and a first-round pick. That feels like … not nearly enough. If Dell Demps did that, Stern would no doubt materialize to roast the Pelicans GM and call him “lousy” all over again. More likely, the Lakers will have to come off the top rope with a killer offer in order to pin the Pelicans down on a trade. That almost certainly means including Ball and Brandon Ingram in any deal, along with other pieces for salary-matching purposes and multiple first-round picks. Would Johnson and Rob Pelinka be willing to move Ball, Ingram, and Kuzma, plus an assortment of first-rounders, in order to make the Pelicans salivate? It would be a lot to give up, but they’ll have to blow the Pelicans away to have a shot at getting Davis now. (Meanwhile, Ball reportedly prefers to be rerouted from a team he hasn’t even been traded to yet. This is all so delightful that I feel obligated to send Paul a gift basket and a thank-you card for putting it all in motion.)
Just the possibility that any or all of this could come to fruition is so very tantalizing. Los Angeles has always been the NBA epicenter in the summer, but sometime soon that might be more than a seasonal truth. Consider the crazy entertainment value of some combination of Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis occupying the same conference, the same city, the same arena. Take all my money. That sounds like a blast. I generally try not to be too earnest or giddy about this stuff but [dramatic movie music] what if we’re headed for a real battle for L.A.?