Column: Lakers still have big targets in sight: They must land LeBron James and trade for Kawhi Leonard

They lost Paul George when nobody thought they could lose Paul George.

They haven’t been able to trade for Kawhi Leonard even though they can offer the best deal.

After the first frenzied hours of NBA free agency Saturday, the mandate for the Lakers became brutally clear.

It’s LeBron James or bust.

Either the league’s best player signs with the Lakers or their hyped offseason could quickly crumple.

The good news for the Lakers is that it appears the race for James is theirs to lose.


Contrary to popular belief, he apparently would come to the Lakers without another great player and attempt to rework the team while he is here. It also appears he is putting Cleveland on the back burner and has little interest in Philadelphia, the only two other places that have the salary space to offer him a suitable contract.

So, really, it’s down to whether Magic Johnson can do the one thing thing he was hired to do, which is convince arguably the greatest player in history to become a Laker for less money and no immediate championship hopes.

Last week he exhorted the city to bet on him. So the city now holds its breath as it places that giant bet.

So that’s the good news. The bad news is, well, somehow, they Lakers lost Paul George.

How could that happen? How could they let a Palmdale native who has been openly pining for a return home for an entire year remain in … Oklahoma City?

George reportedly has agreed to a four-year, $137-million contract to stay on a team run by ball-hogging Russell Westbrook in a city far, far from home. Under league rules, the Lakers couldn’t have paid him as much, but he could have been richly compensated by other advantages of this marketplace.

After being traded there last year, George apparently fell in love with the Thunder organization such that he never even took an official meeting with the Lakers. That says something about both teams. As much as he was enamored with Thunder, he must not have been properly blown away by the Lakers, who seemingly entered these sweepstakes with a huge advantage.

Something went wrong here. That “something” dates back to last summer. The Lakers’ biggest mistake was in ever letting George go to Oklahoma City in the first place.

After last season, George told his Indiana Pacers he wanted to play for the Lakers when he became a free agent this summer. All the Lakers had to do was trade for him. But instead of making a grand offer to pursue George, the Lakers figured they would wait a year and he would jump in their laps, and what happened?

Saturday night happened.

Again, James can fix all of this if he shows up, and there’s a decent chance he will, even alone. He has always believed he is big enough to carry a good team to greatness, and his drawing power should be enough to allow the Lakers to add enough talent to make them a good team.

But the Lakers can take no chances.

They need, first, of course, to not mess up any meeting they have with James. Don’t pull a Dwight Howard or LaMarcus Aldridge and turn him off. Don’t sell him on a town where he already owns houses. Sell him on the chances for a title.

Talk basketball, talk winning, be nice, and you probably have him.

Second, the Lakers need to press even harder in a trade for Leonard.

Some are asking, should the Lakers really trade the heart of their young team for a guy who played nine games last season, has uncertain medical issues, and walked out on the most solid franchise in sports?

In a heartbeat.

Certainly, the love is understandable for the potential of Brandon Ingram, the surprise of Kyle Kuzma, the solidness of Josh Hart, the fun of Lonzo Ball, and the possibilities of future first-round draft picks.

But this infatuation must be countered the reality that, for this rare chance to make a dramatic sweep back to greatness, they should not be shy about trading the entire bunch of them.

Trading for Leonard is a risk, but you’re talking about breaking up a 35-win team to take that risk. It’s worth it.

He’ll be a free agent next season, and he has said he wants to join the Lakers then, but, see Paul George.

He left the Spurs during the season because he didn’t trust their treatment of his quad injury and was seeking medical care on his own, but this was the first time he’s caused even a bit of controversy. That can be worked out.

The Spurs think they have all the leverage, so much that they reportedly wouldn’t even entertain the Lakers’ trade offers until late last week. But they have apparently realized that his loss of faith in the organization is so great, it would make it difficult for him to play his final year there. Even if he does, next summer they could lose him for nothing.

So now they’re listening. And the Lakers should be shouting.

Because Leonard missed most of last season with a quad injury, people forget just how dominating he can be. Check out some of his highlights on YouTube. He’s still only 27. There is no indication that his injury will linger and even if it does, he is worth the patience.

There has been talk of a third team in this trade, a team that could give the Lakers a first-round pick that San Antonio desires. This is where Lonzo Ball comes in, because he is the one player that the Spurs do not want — they’re not down for the Ball family circus — but he’s a player whose social popularity other teams might appreciate.

One potential problem. A story was leaked Friday about a torn meniscus in Ball’s left knee. It is an injury that the Lakers did not confirm. In fact, just last week the Lakers were bragging about how good the kid looked.

Hmm, could someone involved in his off-court buffoonery be spreading the injury news — which, again, has not been confirmed — to prevent Ball from being traded from his hometown? That would figure.

What does not figure is the Lakers trying to hold on to Ball and his young teammates for the sake of the future when, right now, their future could be in San Antonio, in a superstar who could be coming home and bringing a championship with him.

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke