In the run-up to and aftermath of the Raptors winning the 2019 NBA championship, a number of people began wondering aloud whether we might be seeing the dawn of a new era—one in which a deep roster led by a single superstar had at least as good a chance at the title as a team top-heavy with multiple All-NBA-caliber players.
Owners have been trying to fight against the latter for years, even as clusters of marquee talent had come to define the league and dominate the title picture. Measures like a significantly stiffer luxury tax, with brutal financial penalties for repeat offenders, seemed targeted at high-revenue/big-market franchises hell-bent on flouting the league’s soft cap to hoard high-priced players. The introduction of the designated veteran player extension, more commonly referred to as the “supermax,” aimed to give lower-revenue/smaller-market teams a powerful weapon in the fight to keep their homegrown stars—the ability to pay significantly more money than any other team could.
The Board of Governors might not be batting 1.000 on those changes—the new tax structure seems to have worked out as intended; the supermax, maybe not so much—but the direction is clear. As NBA commissioner Adam Silver said before the 2018 NBA Finals, “The notion in this league is parity of opportunity.” The Raptors’ title win, to some, represented a victory for that notion. And with the Warriors wounded and wobbling, so much money up for grabs in free agency, and so many teams seemingly within one move and some good luck of making a Finals run, it seemed like we might be about to say goodnight to the superteam era for good.
That talk might have been premature, though. Whether they galaxy-brained the NBA-watching world into confusing a carefully concocted plan for a mind-blowing mistake, or just found an 11th-hour way to unwind an egregious error, the Los Angeles Lakers are where they wanted to be: with two superstars in the fold, and the means to acquire a third. LeBron James came last summer. Anthony Davis, after a brief half-season layover, arrived two weeks ago. And with Thursday’s news that L.A. has expanded its deal with the Pelicans into a three-teamer that will ship Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga, Jemerrio Jones, and a 2022 second-round pick to the Wizards, the Lakers can now open up $32 million in salary cap space to spend when free agency opens up on Sunday. That sound you are hearing is the theme from Jaws.
The adjusted deal structure still leaves the Lakers about $700,000 shy of what a player with between seven and nine years of service time can earn in the first season of a maximum-salaried contract if the salary cap remains at the projected $109 million. But in a world in which Davis just waved a $4 million trade kicker to facilitate the move to his preferred destination, $700,000 is probably closer to a rounding error than an impediment to landing a top-tier superstar who wants to link up in L.A. According to ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, perhaps the best player on the free-agent market just might.
Stephen A. Smith - “I have received word that Kawhi Leonard is seriously considering the Los Angeles Lakers.” pic.twitter.com/mfsd6locjD— Lakers Empire (@LakersEmpire) June 28, 2019
It’s no shock that the Lakers want to pursue Kawhi Leonard. Rob Pelinka and Co. have reportedly held firm to the belief that the Lakers would be in the mix for the two-time Finals MVP despite the widespread public perception that the race for his services had only two serious entrants: the Raptors, whom he just led to the NBA championship, and the Clippers, who have lusted after Leonard all season. That seemed unlikely when it appeared the Lakers would be able to open up only somewhere between $23 million and $28 million in cap space following the Davis deal. But things shifted as soon as the AD deal’s structure changed Thursday; all of a sudden, Leonard planned to grant the Lakers a meeting.
The Clippers and Raptors will get to make their cases, too, with Toronto reportedly scheduled to have the last word. The Raptors just proved to Leonard that they could keep him healthy after he’d missed nearly an entire season with a quadriceps injury, and that they could put a championship-caliber team around him. The Clippers have built a deep, promising, young roster with the flexibility to add multiple pieces around Leonard, and have developed a reputation as one of the league’s savviest and smartest front offices under the aegis of deep-pocketed and passionate owner Steve Ballmer.
In Toronto, Kawhi will remain a folk hero, the King in the North, the man who gave an increasingly basketball-rabid nation its first NBA championship. With the Clippers, Leonard can elevate another organization to unprecedented prominence and become the greatest player in the history of another franchise, this time closer to the comforts of his Southern California home. Maybe those pitches will resonate; maybe it would appeal to Leonard to have everything revolve entirely around him.
Then again, maybe it wouldn’t. I’m not going to lie: My first reaction to the idea of Leonard donning purple and gold was that being the third man into a Big Three doesn’t really sound like Kawhi. But I have no idea what actually animates Leonard, and I’m not sure anyone else does, either. Maybe a player who has already won two NBA championships and two Finals MVP trophies—who has already carried a franchise to new heights on his broad shoulders, who has already had to create damn near everything against elite defenses on his own in the hothouse of a postseason series—will prefer the idea of being flanked by two other world-breakers for a change.
Kawhi had to ostensibly be LeBron to win his second ring. Maybe he’d rather try to win a third with the help of the original and a 26-year-old All-NBA big man who joins Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo on an extremely short list of players with the two-way talent to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. That might sound a hell of a lot more appealing than spending entire playoff quarters wondering whether anyone else is going to shoot.
A LeBron-AD-Kawhi Lakers team would still have work to do, of course. The only other pieces on the roster at present are bucket-getting mainstay Kyle Kuzma and second-round rookie Talen Horton-Tucker. That team features zero guards—well, LeBron’s essentially the point guard, but you know what I mean—and will have only the $4.8 million room midlevel exception and minimum salary exceptions with which to field a full NBA roster. Maybe a bunch of quality veterans will be willing to take a lot less money to roll with the winners. But with so many teams in possession of so much money to spend, maybe they won’t; Pelinka could have a hard time giving new coach Frank Vogel a full complement of NBA-caliber sidemen to surround his new power trio. This is the argument for taking that $32 million in cap space and trying to spend it on four or five useful role players; it’s awfully hard to win a title with like nine dudes playing for the minimum, even if your top three are historic. (Especially when all three of them will probably require minutes-and-games-restricting load management plans, or at least would likely benefit greatly from them.)
If Leonard wants to come, though, you throw all of that out the window, and pay perhaps the best player in the world to come play with your team. Let Silver, the Board of Governors, and us blog boys rend our garments about what it means when the player who turned the Raptors into the reason to believe you don’t need to stack superstars to win anymore decides to up and join a new superstar stack. Put all that talk about the end of the superteam era to bed and go about the business of making the next era your era; put the talent together and force the rest of the NBA to get its weight up. The notion in this league is parity of opportunity. This is the Lakers’ chance to seize theirs.