Is LeBron James the Right Target for the Los Angeles Lakers?

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterMarch 13, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, left, tries to get past Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, March 11, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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LOS ANGELES — The murmurs have been in the air for months.

LeBron is headed to L.A.

Los Angeles brings James closer to his entertainment interests in one of the NBA's largest media markets. And the Lakers get the superstar they've been thirsting for since Kobe Bryant retired.

For years, the Los Angeles Lakers have been playing the cap-space game, and by trading Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to James' Cavaliers in February, the Lakers opened the spending power to land not just LeBron but also another All-Star to play alongside him.

"He's the best player on the planet," a Western Conference executive said. "No questions asked, you have to take LeBron."

Indeed, as he has shown in trying to carry a chemistry- and health-challenged Cavs team to a fourth straight Finals appearance, James is a franchise-changer, but is he the right target for this Lakers franchise?

"I don't think he's the best fit with Lonzo [Ball]," one Eastern Conference executive said. "I think James would stunt his growth. Ball is talented enough to play off the ball and make it work, but he's best with the ball in his hands. With him wanting to secure his first payday, I don't think he'll be too happy deferring to James. You know his pop won't."

The same could be said of the Lakers' emerging young core of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Julius Randle.

There's also the matter of age. Though he is one of the league's most finely conditioned athletes, would James, at age 33, want to adapt to the Lakers' pace, which is the fastest in the league at 103.2 possessions per 48 minutes? According to NBA.com, the Cavaliers are 14th overall at 99.9 this season. And last year, the Cavaliers ranked 16th. Equally uncertain, would Los Angeles need, and be willing, to slow down its tempo for James?

Then there's the biggest question: If James is looking to win titles above all, are the Lakers' young players ready to contribute at that high a level?

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 19:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers dunks over Julius Randle #30 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half at Staples Center on March 19, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledge
Harry How/Getty Images

Even if the Lakers bring in Paul George along with James, can a group of players barely old enough to legally order alcohol, without one game of NBA postseason experience, give enough support to win 16 contests through June?

None of the answers are easy, and while the obvious play would be to try for James, the Lakers need to seriously consider how long LeBron James will be LeBron James.

"He has two or three years left at an elite level," an NBA agent said, a sentiment echoed by the Western Conference executive.

The executive from the East, however, didn't agree: "He'll be LBJ for however long he wants. He's a freak. I'm confident he can dominate for another five to six years."

Former Cavaliers general manager David Griffin is also a strong believer in James' longevity.

"He can be truly elite as long as the game continues to hold his singular focus," Griffin said. "No one puts in more time on and off the floor. He fanatically maintains his body and the vast majority of his explosiveness.

"He has added something to his repertoire every offseason to combat any loss of athleticism he perceives," Griffin continued. "As he evolves to become a better shooter and less dependent upon overwhelming you physically, he is also becoming even more cerebral."

It's a challenge to find James detractors in or around the NBA.

Still, it's important to note that Bryant was a significant force through the 2012-13 season, averaging 27.3 points, 6.0 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game at the age of 34 before tearing his Achilles tendon late in the year.

The great ones fall eventually. Father Time, as the cliche notes, is undefeated.

With that in mind, there may be wiser long-term options for the Lakers. 

If Los Angeles can sign George (27) this summer, it can also re-sign a rapidly blooming Julius Randle without having to offload Luol Deng's contract. Given that path, the Lakers could look to trade Deng before the summer of 2019, when Deng is owed only $18.8 million—better than the $36.8 million he's owed over the next two years. That would likely make for a lower return cost for L.A.

And consider the list of potential free agents in 2019: Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Jimmy Butler, among others.

Arguably, all would be good fits, and all would arrive with a lot fewer miles on their basketball odometers than James.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JANUARY 13:  Pau Gasol #16 of the San Antonio Spurs, Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs, and Davis Bertans #42 of the San Antonio Spurs look on against the Denver Nuggets on January 13, 2018 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texa
Mark Sobhani/Getty Images

What if James signed for just two years with the Lakers? Wouldn't they be able to replace him with Anthony Davis in 2020?

Perhaps, but the Lakers strongly believe Brandon Ingram is one of the best young players in the league. If that's true, the team would need to set aside a cap hold of almost $22 million to keep Ingram a restricted free agent after the 2019-20 season, assuming it doesn't sign him to an extension first.

And if the Lakers are paying George, Ingram, Randle, Kyle Kuzma and Ball, there won't be any room for Davis.

No matter the scenario, Randle, more than any other player, may hold the key. Getting LeBron—or any high-profile free agent—won't be easy without George, and getting George to sign could be problematic if the Lakers don't pay Randle. The two share the same agent in Aaron Mintz at Creative Artists Agency.

Mintz's relationship with the Lakers has been a bit tumultuous of late after the team traded another of his clients, D'Angelo Russell, to the Brooklyn Nets last summer.

Should executives Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka do right by Randle, they also may be able to convince George to join the team's improving youth movement, with eyes on adding another star in 2019.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

If they have James in their pocket, there's an even stronger case to be made to George, and that appears to be Plan A for the Lakers this summer.

No matter the plan, the franchise has to be careful about its options.

The Lakers' window to add two stars is over the summers of 2018 and 2019. Come 2020, the Lakers project to be over the salary cap. It's going to be a long time before the franchise can dip back into free agency with significant spending power.

And while James seems the obvious move, how long he’ll play at an elite level is a serious concern. Thompson or Leonard should play at All-Star levels for a lot longer than James will.

Few would brand signing James a "mistake," but for the long term, he may not be the right play for this young Lakers franchise. 

   

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.

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