LOS ANGELES — On the day of the NBA trade deadline, the Cleveland Cavaliers created a direct path for LeBron James to head west this offseason, straight to the Los Angeles Lakers. Cleveland took a calculated risk that Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., along with George Hill and Rodney Hood—also acquired on Feb. 8 from the Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz—would give James a reason to stay.
The Cavaliers may not have looked like a contender in the Eastern Conference a week ago, but now they may be the favorite to return to the NBA Finals. It's a worthwhile gamble even if Cleveland helped the Lakers open enough cap room this summer to sign both Paul George and James.
Lakers executives Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Rob Pelinka set the team directly on this course when they traded D'Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov in June to the Brooklyn Nets. They've done everything within their power to achieve that goal.
Now they'll wait for the stars to align, literally. George and James will decide their own fates, but the Lakers have assured themselves a seat at the table.
But what if James was just using his impending free-agent status to leverage Cleveland to action? What if he rejects the inevitable overtures from Los Angeles?
Paul George and...?
The Paul George decision looms almost as large as the James decision.
Johnson and Pelinka would undoubtedly continue their pursuit of George, who can opt out of his final year (at $20.7 million) with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Oklahoma City has serious financial issues ahead to avoid a payroll well over $250 million next season. Some NBA executives believe Carmelo Anthony will welcome a trade to a larger city, which would help normalize the Thunder's finances. Other executives have even suggested Anthony may opt out to play in a larger market with a better chance to win a title—perhaps a place like Houston. But it seems far-fetched Anthony would leave $28 million behind, when he can simply start the ring chasing in 2019.
Should George join the Lakers without James, Los Angeles would be able to pay him a starting salary of $30.3 million ($130.3 million over four years). By letting any of their pending free agents and non-guaranteed players go, the Lakers would have another $30.3 million to spend, perhaps on injured New Orleans Pelicans center DeMarcus Cousins. That would be quite the risk given the All-Star's recent Achilles tear.
Assuming Kevin Durant and Chris Paul re-sign with their respective organizations, the next-best free agent would be Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan. Jordan can earn up to $35.4 million this summer, but he may struggle to find that lucrative an offer.
The Lakers could chase several restricted free agents like Aaron Gordon, Clint Capela, Zach LaVine, Jabari Parker or Hood, but their current teams would be able to match any offer out of Los Angeles.
Los Angeles could look instead to re-sign Julius Randle and Isaiah Thomas. If timed properly, the Lakers would have another $7.7 million in cap room to spend. Bringing back just one of the two could give the team roughly $19 million to offer mid-tier free agents like Derrick Favors or Avery Bradley.
If the Lakers can find a way out of Luol Deng's contract, they could open $40-48 million of spending power, in addition to George. Some of that might be used to bring back players like Brook Lopez and/or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Obviously, the key to it all is George choosing to leave the Thunder for Los Angeles.
No James, no George
If Johnson and Pelinka are unable to lure James and George, they could look to sign players like Cousins, Jordan, Favors or Bradley. But their focus would likely turn to the summer of 2019.
The list of potential free agents is an impressive list of "K" names including Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson and Kevin Love. Jimmy Butler and Hassan Whiteside could also be available, along with any 2018 free agents who take short-term deals.
Even if the Lakers do sign George in July, they may hold some of their spending power for 2019, which could limit how much they are willing to pay to keep their own players like Thomas, Randle, Lopez and Caldwell-Pope.
The NBA's current salary-cap projection for the 2019-20 season is $108 million. Most of the top free agents will be eligible for contracts starting at $32.4 million.
The Lakers may need to give out one-year deals in July to make sure they have almost $65 million in spending power to go after two stars the following season.
The Lakers may choose to overpay someone like Thomas for a single year, giving him a higher salary above $20 million as incentive.
The Philadelphia 76ers took a similar approach in signing guard J.J. Redick to a one-year, $23 million contract this past summer, giving the Sixers nearly $27 million in cap room in July—a small move away from the space needed to chase James or George.
The Lakers could also look to use their cap room in trades to take players in the last years of deals, like they did over the course of the past 12 months with Corey Brewer and Brook Lopez. Whatever the answer, the Lakers will continue to groom their young players with the hope that their next All-Stars are homegrown.
They'd love James and George to help catapult the team quickly into contention. But if James has been using Los Angeles as leverage, and if George chooses to stay loyal to Russell Westbrook and the Thunder, the Lakers' path back to the postseason may take a little bit longer.