Column: It’s time for the Lakers to make a big move — for Kawhi Leonard
The action is bonkers, the drama is breathtaking, the nightly spectacle is the most magical stretch in sports.
It’s the King versus mortality, the Beard versus doubt, the Dubs versus the world.
Yet one of most intriguing subplots of these NBA playoffs involves two parties who have been watching from afar.
Two fallen champions with their noses pressed against the glass. Two former greats dreaming of future vindication. Two troubled souls who, while standing alongside each other, should realize they need each other.
The Lakers and Kawhi Leonard.
The Lakers are watching because they’re a team without a superstar. Leonard is watching because he’s a superstar apparently without a team.
Sounds like a perfect fit to me.
The Lakers need to begin working a trade for the estranged San Antonio Spurs forward. They need to start it now. It makes too much sense. It checks too many boxes.
Leonard would be coming home. He would be leaving a place that no longer seems like his home. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka promised they would build a championship-contending roster. This would be the first step toward fulfilling that promise.
The Lakers would have to give up one or two of their core young players to make the deal. Brandon Ingram or Kyle Kuzma would have to go. Maybe both. Their late first-round draft pick would also disappear.
But in exchange, the Lakers would not only add one of the top five players in the league, but Leonard’s presence would be enough to attract another foundation piece in Paul George, or maybe even help them land the whale that is LeBron James. Plus, with enough economic gymnastics, it could also give them the salary cap flexibility to keep potential free agent Julius Randle.
Would you trade Ingram and Kuzma and a No. 25 draft pick for Leonard, George and Randle? Thought so.
Watching the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year should increase the Lakers’ sense of urgency. Knowing that they improved by nine wins this season and still finished in the league’s bottom third should heighten Johnson’s and Pelinka’s sense of responsibility.
“We’re going to be a major player next summer,’’ Johnson said last June.
This would be how that looks.
“We’re going to deliver on Jeanie’s [Buss] challenge to us all to make the Lakers the greatest sports franchise in the world — that will happen,’’ said Pelinka last March.
This would be how that happens.
In his season-ending news conference last week, Pelinka suddenly hedged his bets on free agent salvation, saying, “I don’t look at July of 2018 as the litmus test of success.’’
This trade would help fix the Lakers before the uncertainty of that James and George courtship.
“We want guys who are mentally tough, gym rats, guys who love the game,’’ Johnson said last June. “We want guys with no baggage. We want winners.’’
Kawhi Leonard is all of that.
The 26-year-old former Riverside King High star is perhaps the league’s quietest great player, the essence of a gym rat with no baggage, the 2014 Finals MVP, twice an All-NBA first-team selection, twice defensive player of the year.
Things turned bad for him this season when he played only nine games for the Spurs while rehabilitating a right quadriceps injury that led members of the organization, including teammates, to subtly question his toughness.
Leonard has been rehabbing under the direction of his own doctors in New York in recent weeks and has not been with the team during the Spurs’ first-round series against Golden State. When recently asked whether he expected Leonard to return before the end of the playoffs, coach Gregg Popovich said, “You’ll have to ask Kawhi and his group that question. So far, they say he’s not ready to go.’’
His group? Aren’t the Spurs supposed to be his group? It’s clear that trust between Leonard and the Spurs has been broken, and it seems unlikely that Leonard would want to stay in San Antonio when his contract expires next season. That would leave the Spurs with the mandate to trade him before losing him for nothing.
He would not be a rental here. The Lakers would not make the trade if they didn’t think he would sign a long-term deal. All indications are that he would.
The Lakers could have made this same sort of trade last summer, after George disengaged with the Indiana Pacers by saying he wanted to be a Laker. But the Pacers shipped him out to Oklahoma City. The Lakers need to make sure San Antonio gets their best shot before this happens again.
The biggest stumbling block to this deal would obviously be the fear that the Lakers would be giving up too much. Though it seems the Spurs would not want Lonzo Ball and all of his drama, they would embrace potential All-Stars Ingram and Kuzma. Are the Lakers willing to face some angry fans with their departure?
It seems as though they are. When asked last week if he would consider trading a player from the team’s young core of stars, Johnson cut off the question with, “We are not going to talk about that.’’
Johnson offered no follow-up guarantees about any of the young stars. Apparently, though he doesn’t want to discuss personnel moves, he is certainly open to making one.
“One thing about me is, I’m a risk-taker,’’ said Johnson last year when he was hired.
This is that risk, and he needs to take it.
“I’m putting it all on the line,’’ Johnson said then.
This would be that line, now show it.
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