The Lakers are going to be a soap opera as much as they will be a basketball team this season. On the heels of agreeing to sign LeBron James to a four-year, $154 million deal, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka celebrated by handing out one-year deals to some of the most fascinating characters the NBA has to offer.
First, there was the business move: The Lakers agreed to terms with Klutch Sports client Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on a one-year deal worth $12 million. A year ago, the Lakers signed KCP to a one-year deal that everyone assumed was laying the groundwork for Sunday’s deal with James. Pelinka even quoted the Bible in the introductory press conference. The Klutch connection paid off.
After bringing KCP back, the Lakers’ front office then decided to throw up not one but two free-agency heat checks. The first was to agree to terms with Lance Stephenson. Yes, that Lance Stephenson, the one who blew in LeBron’s ear during a playoff series and plays like he’s constantly trying to crawl out of his own skin. He and the Lakers agreed to a one-year, $4.5 million deal.
Then the Lakers stole JaVale McGee away from the Warriors with a one-year deal at the veteran’s minimum. Can you say championship pedigree?
Before you label Stephenson and McGee the new Showtime Stooges, think of the value both can bring to a LeBron-led team. While Stephenson has worn out his welcome with several organizations, including the Pacers twice, he has the potential to be a spark plug off the bench for a team that doesn’t have much shot creation on the roster after James and Lonzo Ball. And considering that Brook Lopez is a free agent, the center spot is ripe for McGee’s taking. The memes will flow, and LeBron may bark at the duo from time to time, but the Lakers scooped up at a minimal cost two players who had some impact on their teams this past postseason, plus another still young enough to improve.
If there’s a larger takeaway from this deluge of post-LeBron deals, it’s that the summer of 2019 may still be an important one for the Lakers. LeBron’s choice to head west right away means they may be able to wait out the Spurs in Kawhi Leonard trade talks. And if Leonard remains in San Antonio for all of this season, or still plans to head to L.A. after getting traded elsewhere, one-year deals for JaVale, Lance, and KCP will allow the Lakers to open up space again to sign him — or make a run at a possible third star. (This could have been you, Paul George.)
This strategy of handing out only one-year deals may also factor into how the Lakers will approach Julius Randle’s restricted free agency. To keep him and their precious 2019 cap space, the Lakers may have to entice him to turn down an offer sheet elsewhere in favor of one more season in L.A. for a hefty sum. That’s a tough ask considering what kind of money and long-term security Randle could get on the open market. And we all know how LeBron likes to be surrounded by as many shooters as possible, and Randle isn’t that; right now, the Lakers’ roster doesn’t have a dead-eye shooter and is led by a point guard with a funky shooting motion. The Lakers could try to sign DeMarcus Cousins, a capable 3-point shooter, to a similar deal should they have enough cap space left over, or by stretching Luol Deng’s contract. But Randle, 23, still hasn’t even reached his prime, and unlike Cousins, he’s not coming off a potentially career-altering injury.
Put LeBron on any team and ring-chasers will flock to it; one located in sunny Los Angeles will only be more attractive. Caldwell-Pope, Stephenson, and McGee are only the introductory class of players looking to join LeBron’s Lakers. The longer he plays there, the more there will be.