The Lakers have cleared the decks. They’ve stripped away every player from the roster who they do not view as central to their next championship push. It turns out the list of remaining players is hilariously small and remarkably expensive, and before filling out the margins the Lakers very much hope that list will grow enormously in price while growing by exactly one in population.
The news Thursday was Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka shipping former first-round pick Mo Wagner, former second-round pick Isaac Bonga, and developmental-league warm body Jemerrio Jones to the Washington Wizards, along with a future second-round pick, in exchange for cash. Wagner, Bonga, and Jones were the last three players left on the Lakers roster other than LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Kyle Kuzma, and they were traded away in order to get the Lakers enough salary cap space to recruit Kawhi Leonard (clearing the space also required that Davis waive a $4.1 million trade kicker, which he reportedly did). Incidentally, Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported Thursday that the Lakers are one of the few teams who will be granted a meeting with Kawhi this summer.
The Lakers aren’t necessarily committed to spending the money on a max-level free agent. Depending upon what happens with Leonard, they could spend the next month buying up useful role players and filling out their bench with credible rotation guys. Or, because they are generally run with more than a little foolishness, they could spend that cap space on another ill-fitting parade of clowns, like they did last summer. But without shedding enough salary to pay a max-level salary in free agency, as they have now done, they would have no opportunity to strike should, say, the reigning Finals MVP show an interest in joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis on an absolute monster of a superteam.
Before you fret too much about the sagacity of gutting your roster down to the studs in order to chase a shot at spending all your salary cap room on four players, remind yourself that Wagner, Bonga, and Jones are not by any measure a good enough reason to foreclose on the possibility of adding Leonard in free agency. And before you fret too much about the sagacity of spending all your salary cap room on four players, remind yourself that the player the Lakers are hoping to court just turned a perennial disappointment into a championship team in one season, and that the team they beat in the Finals made it there in the first place because, by having four star players, they were able to survive the loss of one of the two or three best basketball players on earth, and still rampage over the best teams in their brutal conference.
It took a lot of demolition for the Lakers to get here, and it could all very easily blow up. The last time the Lakers put together a superteam, Dwight Howard turned into a sulking teenager, Steve Nash turned into a mummy, Kobe Bryant’s Achilles tendon went kerpow, Jodie Meeks finished fourth on the team in total minutes, and the whole thing rotted apart in just one season. But if this past season proved anything, it’s that you worry about what happens after you acquire Kawhi Leonard after you’ve acquired Kawhi Leonard. And besides, even if they don’t land Leonard, the Lakers now have enough money to pivot and give a max contract to J.R. Smith. Truly a win-win scenario.