Here they are again, the Lakers, object of an NBA All-Star’s desires. The player has made his plans known.
Wait one year. Save some cap room for me. I’ll be there as soon as I can.
This is the message Kawhi Leonard sent — for the better part of a year, as he recovered from a right leg injury — to the San Antonio Spurs and the rest of the NBA.
Leonard pressured the Spurs to send him to the Lakers in a trade this summer. Early Wednesday, the Spurs reacted, but not as he hoped. They dealt him to Toronto for All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan, former first-round pick Jakob Poeltl and a top-20 protected first-round pick. The Spurs also sent guard Danny Green to the Raptors in the deal.
If this feels familiar it’s because it is. Just one year ago, everyone in the NBA knew that Paul George planned on signing with the Lakers once he became a free agent.
Like Leonard, George was a Californian and ready to come home.
But instead of sending George to the Lakers, the Indiana Pacers dealt the 6-foot-9 wing to Oklahoma City, with the Thunder gambling that they’d be able to convince him to stay.
Their bet paid off as free agency opened July 1, with George agreeing to a four-year, $137-million contract to remain with the Thunder.
That decision stunned Lakers fans. Wednesday’s Leonard trade might make them nervous that it could happen again.
A star player being sent to a playoff team with the organization getting a one-year audition? This is the exact same script — but with a significant change in casting.
The Lakers that George wanted to sign with had Lonzo Ball as their biggest star. The Lakers that Leonard reportedly still wants to sign with have LeBron James.
Any player, or players, in the loaded 2019 free agent class — Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyrie Irving, etc. — who is serious about playing on a team capable of winning an NBA championship will now have the Lakers on their shortlist. (OK, except for maybe Irving.)
So, unlike last summer — or even last month — the Lakers’ need for George or Leonard immediately has drastically diminished.
Over the course of Leonard’s dramatic final months in San Antonio, there were conflicting opinions about whether he wanted to play alongside James. Some people wondered if his laid-back personality meant he’d like a smaller stage — maybe with the Clippers.
But in the modern NBA, greatness attracts greatness. It’s how the Golden State Warriors lured Kevin Durant. It’s how Boston added Gordon Hayward a summer ago, how Chris Paul landed in Houston, and how Russell Westbrook and the Thunder kept George in Oklahoma City.
Leonard has always seemed like an exception to modern NBA stardom, but maybe that was the Spurs’ uniform and logo distracting us. The organization that managed to keep a core of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker together for an entire era seemed like the perfect place for Leonard — until he wanted out.
The early reaction to his being exported to Toronto isn’t promising. Within minutes of the first reports that a deal could be imminent, the story shifted to Leonard not wanting to be there.
By the time the trade became official, there were reports that Leonard — who only played nine games last season because of a quad injury — would be willing to sit for another year.
That he would make good on such a threat seems wildly unlikely, but it speaks to how toxic the situation is from the jump.
This is all good news for Lakers fans and, to a lesser extent, Clippers fans holding hope that Leonard would rather wear their jersey in Los Angeles.
While the Lakers offer a chance to play with James, the Clippers can hope that there is another superstar out there — Irving? — that Leonard might prefer to play with. The Clippers, if they are creative, can clear the salary space to allow it to happen.
But Leonard coming to L.A. at all is not a done deal — not in a league where DeAndre Jordan can agree to a contract with Dallas, back out and sign with the Clippers, only to end up in Dallas three years later.
Assuming Leonard is healthy and actually plays, the Raptors will have one of the top defenses in the East, with Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas and OG Anunoby. Toronto, along with Philadelphia and Boston, will be the massive favorites to make the NBA Finals from the East with James now in the West.
Toronto is one of the top cities in the NBA, a favorite stop for visiting players. DeRozan clearly loved it, and was clearly stung about being dealt. Maybe the city quickly forms a similar bond with Leonard.
Or maybe the big winner in this trade is Los Angeles, most likely the Lakers.
Toronto could never figure out how to best James when he played in the Eastern Conference.
The Raptors now have one season to figure out how to best him and the Lakers next summer in free agency.