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The Lakers Have a Max Slot. Who Should They Use It On?

Rob Pelinka has cleared the decks in Los Angeles, and now has the room to add a star with the pedigree of Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Kawhi Leonard, or Jimmy Butler. Who makes the most sense to play alongside LeBron and Anthony Davis?

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There were initially some snickers around the league about the Lakers and general manager Rob Pelinka botching the Anthony Davis trade by failing to pay attention to the dirty details. Rival executives probably aren’t laughing quite so much right now. Once the fine print on the deal with New Orleans became public, it was clear the Lakers had put themselves in a hole of their own digging. On Thursday, they managed to climb out of it.

By clearing the decks of their remaining players not named LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma and reportedly sending a 2022 second-round pick to Washington, the Lakers are somehow alive again. Resurrecting their offseason wasn’t easy. The Lakers pulled some nifty cap hocus pocus with Jemerrio Jones’s contract in particular. People who truly understand the CBA black arts called it “a smart and creative move by the Lakers front office.” That’s a far cry from what other people around the league were saying about the Lakers’ decision-makers barely a week ago. The Lakers also somehow convinced Davis to waive his $4 million trade kicker in order to free up the most possible money, according to Woj.

That last bit is the most eye-catching. Conventional wisdom around the NBA at the time of the AD trade held that two things were indisputable and would conspire to limit the Lakers’ available funds heading into free agency: (1) The trade would be executed July 6 (bad for the Lakers in terms of freeing up space) rather than July 30 (good for the Lakers for the opposite reason) and (2) there was no way Davis would pass up 4 million free dollars. That first one is still true. But because the second one changed and Davis did the unexpected, the Lakers pulled off what a lot of people said was impossible: They cleared $32 million in cap space and can now go after the big-ticket free agents when silly season officially gets underway on Sunday at 6 p.m. ET. It’s an impressive bit of paper shuffling and sleight of hand.

The cynics among us will wonder why Davis would give up all that sweet relocation cash—and it’s probably not just to get the jersey number he wants. Los Angeles is expensive! $4 million doesn’t go nearly as far as it used to in this housing market, though Joe House suggested on a recent Heat Check that this is exactly how it would play out. His idea—which I laughed off—was that LeBron James would make it up to his new teammate by funneling Hollywood money his way. My Ringer colleague Rodger Sherman wrote about that very thing and suggested that Space Jam 2, which is now filming, could serve as the equivalent of a nice Cayman Island shell company to help AD recoup the money he missed out on while circumventing league rules. It’s a fun conspiracy, true or not.

Either way, this is all very good news for the Lakers and bad news for the rest of the league. Magic, for one, is happy; the Clippers are almost certainly not. The Clippers have been at the free-agency table for months, desperate to offer their two max slots to Kawhi Leonard and any other superstar who might join him. Now there’s a second team in Los Angeles that can pay top dollar to a superstar. And the Lakers have natural sweeteners that no other teams possess: the chance to play with LeBron and AD.

Not surprisingly, almost immediately after the news broke about the Lakers’ clearing the requisite max space, Yahoo’s Chris Haynes reported that Kawhi will meet with both L.A. organizations. This new reality is going to stress out the Clippers’ and Raptors’ respective front offices for sure—and lots of other executives around the league will be right there with them.

In addition to Leonard’s being in play for the Lakers now, you have to figure that Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, and Jimmy Butler are all in play for the Purple and Gold. Irving and James have been batting their eyelashes at each other ever since LeBron serenaded him, and James’s son Bronny recently joined the reunion recruitment on Instagram. Kemba was previously mentioned as a good fit for the Lakers, but earlier Thursday morning Woj reported that the Boston Celtics have emerged as the front-runners for Walker. That was before the Lakers news came down, so maybe the thinking there has changed. As for Butler, he’s been linked to every team with the space to sign him—chief among them the Sixers, Clippers, Nets, and Knicks—and even to teams who don’t have the money, like the Rockets, who would have get to super-crafty and likely arrange a three-team deal to fold him into the mix.

Maybe Kawhi, Kyrie, Kemba, and Jimmy had their plans all figured out before the Lakers reentered the picture, but even if that is the case they’d all have to at least momentarily reconsider given this latest development. If the Lakers had their pick of all four guys, I’d order them Leonard, Walker, Irving, Butler. Kawhi is pretty plainly the best overall player of the bunch, and he’s never seemed to care much about hogging the headlines, which would make him a good fit beside AD and LeBron for all sorts of reasons. Irving might be a better player than Walker, but I’m not sure by how much. Whatever the difference is in talent, I’m not sure it’s worth the potential chemistry flare-ups that we saw with Kyrie in Boston—and before that when he was with James in Cleveland. Butler is an excellent two-way player—he shined as a pick-and-roll point guard in the playoffs, and his willingness and ability to guard the other team’s biggest threat is awfully attractive—but his star is a little dimmer than the others, and he comes with the same locker room concerns as Irving.

Of course, it’s not simply up to the Lakers here. There are other complications for Leonard and Irving on how they want to manifest their destinies. With two more years of service, both would qualify for the vet supermax that would put them in line to earn somewhere in the ballpark of $250 million over the lifetime of that contract. Would either of them be willing to sign a shorter deal now with designs on grabbing the massive payday two offseasons from now? With what just happened to Kevin Durant, it would be a huge gamble.

There are also questions here from the Lakers’ side. The assumption is that the they cleared $32 million in cap space so that they can sign a third amigo. But the Lakers could also divvy up the money and go after several good players rather than a single great talent. The roster, let’s not forget, is a ghost town. At present, in terms of players who project to be on the team next season, they have James, Davis, Kuzma, and Talen Horton-Tucker, whom the Lakers drafted in the second round. If they throw all their remaining funds at a max free agent, they’ll have to round out the roster with the midlevel exception and veteran minimum contracts. That would put a heavy load on LeBron, AD, and whichever as yet unidentified superstar forms their new Big Three. The other path here is to disburse the funds over several lesser players. My Ringer teammate Dan Devine recently wondered whether Irving at max money was a smarter decision for the Nets than just re-signing D’Angelo Russell at a smaller number. Before the Lakers made their move on Thursday, there were whispers that they might be interested in a reunion with their former point guard. Were they to orchestrate a Russell–Los Angeles homecoming, they’d have money left over to spend on complementary pieces. All things being equal, that’s the path I’d probably pick. It’s great to have three superstars, but we learned in the playoffs (again) that top-loading your roster makes building the rest of your team awfully difficult.

Whichever way they go, the Lakers are in the fight again. It looked like the Pelicans had taken their lunch money for a second there, but now the Lakers have a chance to throw their weight around and act like a bully again. However this shakes out, someone will end up with a bloody lip and some bruises.