It’s curious how passively worded this ESPN report from Wednesday was, as if “pressure is mounting” all by itself, rather than being applied by anyone:
As LeBron James remains hesitant to be the first superstar to decide on the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency, pressure is mounting for the Lakers front office to execute a trade with the San Antonio Spurs to acquire disgruntled All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard.
The report is triple bylined by Wojnarowski, Windhorst, and Shelburne, so it’s presumably about as plugged-in as can be, especially to the principals. And despite the squirrelly wording, the tea leaves are legible as hell: LeBron has told the Lakers to go get Kawhi Leonard if they want to have any chance of signing him.
And what do you know? Just a few hours later, a flood of reports came out saying the Lakers and Spurs have re-engaged on trade talks, a week after they had stalled. The coming days are going to be among the most pivotal in Lakers franchise history, because it appears they’re likely to end up either with their own Big Three, capable of challenging the Warriors and Rockets; or with nothing at all. The first domino is the most important, and tipping it doesn’t have to wait until free agency formally starts on Sunday.
The Lakers’ desperation is justified, but also palpable. (Magic Johnson said he’ll resign if he can’t land the big free agents.) And the Spurs intend to take advantage of it. Leonard has just a year left until his free agency, but San Antonio is reportedly asking for a bigger haul than either Kyrie Irving or Paul George fetched in their respective trades last summer. It’s an awful lot to ask for, but as ESPN notes, “San Antonio understands that this trade ... means both Leonard and James would come to the Lakers.” How big a deal is this to L.A.? The Spurs are demanding the moon and a Lakers source describes the negotiations as “productive.”
Because it’s not just LeBron in play here. Paul George just told the Thunder that he’s opting out of his deal and will enter free agency. And the Lakers, thanks to the Isaiah Thomas trade in February, can pretty easily clear the cap space (by jettisoning Julius Randle and Luol Deng) to sign both LeBron and George to max contracts.
A LeBron/Kawhi/PG Big Three makes the Lakers as good as anyone else in the NBA, even if Leonard will likely opt for free agency next summer and might not be mathematically re-signable for L.A., and even if trading for him now could denude the roster of young and affordable talent that could make the Lakers more sustainably competitive in the longer run. So yeah, maybe LeBron would be better off not requiring a team to ship out all its assets to bring him aboard. But if that’s his demand, that’s his demand, and no one’s ever going to blame the Lakers for doing what it takes to get the best basketball player on the planet for the last years of his prime, and become a championship contender overnight.