Column: Do you believe in Magic? Kawhi Leonard could be the first major step in Lakers’ renovation
This is it, Magic. You’re up.
What was proposed in this column space two months ago can now happen. At this seminal moment in franchise history, the Lakers need to do everything possible to make it happen.
The long-expected news has finally broken that Kawhi Leonard is asking out of San Antonio, and he wants to come home to Southern California, and his first choice would be the Lakers and …
DO IT NOW!
Magic Johnson needs to drop everything, grab his buddy Rob Pelinka, disappear into a back room, dial up the Spurs, and get to work. Make them an offer they can’t refuse. Throw in everybody but Jack Nicholson and Lawrence Tanter. Give them everything but Jeanie Buss’ Twitter account.
Do what they couldn’t do last summer with Paul George. Make it happen even though the Spurs would hate for it to happen. Find a way, any way, to acquire the player who could open that long-locked door to championship contention.
If Leonard comes, potential free agent George would come. And if George comes, you can bet LeBron James would come.
The Lakers can afford all three. They can perform the salary cap gymnastics to fit all three. They are the perfect team for all three.
With those three players, they would end their five-year playoff drought, challenge Golden State and Houston in the West, potentially get back to the Finals for the first time in nine years. For the first time since the days of Kobe and Shaq, they would be a nationally hated Super Team, and, man, wouldn’t that be super?
If all that sounds impossible, well, who thought James would ever flee for Miami and build a title winner, or that Kevin Durant would run to Oakland and enrich a title winner? The stars wonderfully control this league now, and if three of them want to be part of a glorious Lakers history, who says they can’t?
It starts with Leonard, a 26-year-old former NBA Finals MVP and two-time league defensive player of the year who has leverage because he can opt out of the final year of his contract next summer. If the Spurs don’t trade him now, they probably would lose him for nothing next summer, so they’re on the clock.
Could they just keep him and roll the dice? Not when he’s already mentally checked out of an organization that publicly questioned his toughness last season when he played in only nine games after suffering a right quadriceps injury. By the end, he was so estranged from the team that he didn’t even show up for the playoff series against Golden State. So yeah, he’s surely gone.
Lots of teams want him, and here come those hated Boston Celtics again, so acquiring him is not going to be easy. But the Lakers, basketball’s most glamorous franchise, are fronted by the basketball world’s most charismatic figure in basketball’s most electric city.
Earlier this week, Buss cryptically tweeted, “Do not ever underestimate. … Nothing else to say.’’
Fine. No underestimation here. Go for it.
The first challenge is that the Spurs are surely making all kinds of Gregg Popovich-scowling-faces at the idea of trading Leonard to a Western Conference rival. The Lakers gave them Derek Fisher and 0.4 seconds. The Lakers gave them four playoff series defeats since 2000. And the Spurs are just going to give them their future Tim Duncan?
No, the Spurs are not going to want to trade with the Lakers any more than the Indiana Pacers wanted to trade unhappy George to his beloved Lakers last summer. So the Pacers traded out of the East, gave George to Oklahoma City for what was then considered a small return, and only by the grace of Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis did they save face.
Do the conservative Spurs want to take that same chance? Do they really want to take less value from a team that knows the former Riverside King High star would probably be a one-year rental? Do they want to just give him away?
The Lakers’ biggest advantage is that they are the one team that can give up big assets and trust that Leonard would be worth the investment. Their other advantage is that, well, they actually have those assets.
Trade Brandon Ingram. Trade Kyle Kuzma. Trade their 25th-overall pick in next week’s draft. This is the part where some Lakers fans will scream, “Throw in Lonzo Ball!’’ No, sorry, it’s impossible to imagine the button-down Spurs would want anything to do with Ball and his traveling circus. But heck yeah, sure, if the Spurs want him, throw in Lonzo Ball.
By agreeing to trade two former first-round picks and a future first-rounder — you will do that, right, Magic? — the Lakers can make the Spurs the best possible offer for a player who could eventually walk away and leave San Antonio with nothing. The Spurs would have to swallow hard, but if they could get beyond pride they would see it’s the best of a situation they could have prevented.
They blew it by questioning their best player; they blew it by creating fireworks around a guy who never says a word or causes any commotion; they foolishly became estranged from their future. So now they have to pay the price, and only the Lakers can truly minimize thedamage.
Yes, the Lakers could be sacrificing their own future for a guy who just spent a year nursing a leg injury. But remember, this deal would not just be about Kawhi Leonard. This is about Leonard, and James, and George, and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build a team that could enrich history.
Down the hall, the Clippers would be interested in Leonard in a deal centered around their 12th and 13th overall picks next week, and perhaps Tobias Harris. That would bring Leonard to Los Angeles, but there’s no way they can improve the team around him like the Lakers can.
This is a deal that works best for the Lakers. This is the first falling domino in a potentially glorious purple-and-gold-tinted chain reaction.
This is a Magic moment.
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