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Column: NBA free agency: The Lakers’ best option might be Kawhi Leonard or another max player

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) reacts after the Raptors scored against the Orlando Magic
Kawhi Leonard might be a perfect fit for the Lakers if the team decides to go for a Big 3.
(Frank Gunn / Associated Press)

Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka sat at the table wearing another perfectly tailored pinstriped European-cut suit and purple tie, a California tan on his face and plenty of calm in his voice.

“There’s just so much optimism thinking about where we are at as a franchise right now,” he said.

And no one with any sense or smarts believed him.

Pelinka’s optimism about the Lakers? That was May 20, when the Lakers held a news conference to introduce Frank Vogel, who wasn’t their first choice, to be the team’s head coach. That optimism? It came on the same day Magic Johnson went on ESPN and labeled Pelinka a backstabber, throwing the Lakers under a giant purple-and-gold bus.

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That optimism? It came eight days before ESPN released a story uncovering tales of hostility within the Lakers’ offices and rehashing stories about Pelinka setting up meetings between Kobe Bryant and the late actor Heath Ledger.

Optimism? Really? The room was on fire. The legacy and prestige were being torched. Everything was not fine. No one trusted the front office. They were being laughed at and openly mocked.

Pelinka was right.

Now more than a month later, the Lakers aren’t a laughingstock. They’re back to being feared.

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They still have LeBron James, rested and ready to erase memories from a rocky first season in Los Angeles. They will have Anthony Davis and enough cap room to add another top free agent. And even if the maneuvering cost the Lakers a potential total of eight first-round draft picks (three firsts to New Orleans, another possibly in a pick swap, and four former first-round picks), Pelinka got the team aimed at another target with the space it needs for a bull’s-eye.

It’s a massive victory for an organization that hasn’t experienced that much winning. But before people decide to put those slim-cut Pelinka suits into the Staples Center rafters next to Magic and Kareem and Kobe and Jerry and Chick, he still has some massive decisions to make.

The biggest decision is what to do with this cap space — whether to splurge and put it all toward a superstar or to spread it around to a couple of midtier free agents to fill out the team’s stripped roster.

When you consider the Lakers’ legacy and the way they’ve operated, it’s not that much of a decision at all. If Kawhi Leonard is interested, you pitch him. If Kyrie Irving wants to come run the offense, you let him.

Leonard, who will take a free-agency meeting with the Lakers after things officially get underway Sunday, is the top free agent available. Though the meeting with the Lakers caught a lot of NBA people by surprise, some league executives involved in the Leonard chase always viewed the Lakers as a real threat.

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The thinking was the Lakers could build a pathway to Leonard by turning basketball operations over to Toronto President Masai Ujiri and their sports science department over to the Raptors’ Alex McKechnie. Though neither happened, the prospect of pairing with James and Davis as part of the best trio ever in the NBA has to be considered.

The Lakers, even more than Toronto and the Clippers, could offer Leonard a reduced regular season schedule, with plenty of star power for the nights when his workload needs management.

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And with Leonard, they could conceivably rest James and Davis throughout the season too.

That there’s been a late swerve in Leonard’s free agency plans shouldn’t be a surprise. No one knows exactly what it is that Leonard wants or what he’ll do. The Lakers are suddenly more attractive — like the nerdy girl in a ’90s movie who takes off her glasses and becomes prom queen. They were always a destination, they just needed to get cleaned up a bit.

Does it make a ton of basketball sense? Not really. In an ideal world, a point guard like Irving or even a defensive-minded, lower-volume shooting guard like Jimmy Butler make more sense. But if someone as good as Leonard wants to come — and he’s that much better than anyone else available — you figure it out.

And if none of those stars decide to come, the Lakers and Pelinka have to figure it out then too. Maybe, it could even lead to a better way to build a team.

The $32 million the team has in cap space could be split to add bodies to the Lakers’ starting five, maybe split between someone like 23-year-old point guard D’Angelo Russell and a veteran shooting guard like Danny Green.

It could be carved up into even smaller pieces if the Lakers decide to try to build depth, operating under the probably correct assumption that the bottom end of free agency won’t have as many bargains as usual because so many teams have money to spend.

These are the choices that will determine whether the Lakers are a bust or the best, whether there are titles in the future or just more disappointment.

The last time around, this didn’t go well. Money went to a rim-runner instead of a floor-spacer. It went to ballhandlers and passers and reputation defenders instead of shooters and actual lockdown players.

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The Lakers could get this all wrong again.

But with Davis and James on board and top guys like Leonard at least looking at the Lakers, there are reasons to think they won’t.

There’s optimism. And right now, if you have any sense or smarts, you can believe it.

dan.woike@latimes.com

Twitter: @DanWoikeSports


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