The Los Angeles Lakers have long had the 2018 offseason circled on the calendar.
California native Paul George and the Lakers always seemed like a match, and he is a prime target of the team. On the other hand, Russell Westbrook may be off the table after signing an extension with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but Kawhi Leonard seems to have replaced him as a new target and is now part of rampant NBA trade rumors in the last week.
Yet, the latest buzz seems to indicate there is a legitimate chance the Lakers could strike out this summer. Is George no longer seemingly a lock for Los Angeles? Could the San Antonio Spurs refuse to deal their superstar to a conference rival? These storylines are adding even more intrigue to what should result in a league-shifting offseason.
George Staying Put?
George has to be a focal point of what the Lakers are trying to accomplish this offseason, but it reportedly does not seem to be a slam dunk that he will be making a homecoming.
ESPN's Stephen A. Smith said that league sources are unsure that George will sign with the Lakers. He added that the Thunder are prepared to offer George a max contract, which would mean more money than the Lakers would be able to offer George as a free agent.
George's strong relationship with Westbrook is another factor that could keep him in Oklahoma City, Smith noted.
This may turn out to be a significant development, as the success of the Lakers' offseason arguably hinges on George coming to Los Angeles.
George is obviously an established star in the NBA, having averaged 18.6 points per game in his career and nearly 22 points per game in each of his last four full seasons. He is still just 28 years old with several seasons left where he should be expected to be in his prime.
Landing George would also re-establish the Lakers as a free-agent destination. Although they are frequently mentioned when major free agents become available, the Lakers hardly ever sign a big fish. In fact, it can be argued that their last high-profile signings came in 2003 when Gary Payton and Karl Malone joined the team; otherwise, the Lakers typically make their big acquisitions like Pau Gasol or Dwight Howard via trade.
George would undoubtedly be the most impactful free agent the Lakers have signed in the last 15 years, and signing him would mean the team can keep its young assets. This is especially important because it allows Los Angeles to go after high-profile names that have come up in trade rumors like Leonard or Kemba Walker.
Signing George is an opportunity the Lakers have not had in years, and they have to convert. Should he stay with the Thunder or sign elsewhere, it would be a major blow to a proud franchise that has averaged a mere 25 wins over the past five seasons. It would also be a black mark on the front office combination of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka in what seems like a make-or-break offseason.
Spurs Reluctant to Move Leonard to L.A.
Leonard, another California native, has recently overshadowed the likes of George and even LeBron James this summer, as several reports in the last week indicate he wants out of San Antonio. As for the Lakers, it seems another local kid wants to return home.
While ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Leonard would prefer a trade to the Lakers, it is definitely not that simple. The New York Times' Marc Stein, while appearing on ESPN 710 in Los Angeles, said that the Spurs want no part of a trade with the Lakers unless the offer is simply too good to refuse or involves a third team:
“They clearly do not want to do business with the Lakers but if the Lakers could assembly the best deal…if the Lakers could use their assets to bring in a 3rd team & San Antonio gets the most out of a trade from the Lakers…they would do it.” - @TheSteinLine on the Spurs
Now, what that exactly means is unclear.
The Lakers seemingly have three attractive young pieces in Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma. Their first-round pick this year is only No. 25, although they have a first-round selection for the next several years. Per Chris Haynes of ESPN, the Lakers are willing to move Ball in a deal to bring James to Los Angeles, so they are at least open to trading last season's No. 2 pick.
Would it take Ball, either Ingram or Kuzma and at least two first-round picks to persuade the Spurs to change their mind about a trade with the Lakers? Would it behoove the Lakers to rip out so much of their core for a player who played nine games last season with injury concerns, and would Leonard want to play for a depleted team that may miss out on George?
Making matters worse is that teams with more assets are in play for Leonard, as Wojnarowski singled out the Boston Celtics as a possibility:
Adrian Wojnarowski @wojespn
Indiana had little interest in Paul George trade w/ Lakers -- and that'll be case for Spurs too. Boston gives Spurs best building blocks of assets -- one of young forwards (likely Jaylen Brown), its own 18 pick/19 protected Kings pick, etc. Lonzo to Spurs? Don't hold your breath.
There are undoubtedly a bunch of obstacles for the Lakers to bring in Leonard. He is a free agent after this season, so if he truly wants to play for the Lakers that badly, they could build up their team for another year and hope to land Leonard without giving up any assets. There is still some major risk involved there, as a team like Boston could trade for Leonard and convince him to sign there long-term.
With all of these factors floating around, it currently seems unlikely the Lakers will pry Leonard from the Spurs this offseason. He may eventually become a Laker, but the team seems better off keeping its core together and focusing on landing George while pursuing more feasible trade options.
Statistics are courtesy of Basketball Reference.