Kawhi Trade Request Opens Way to LeBron-Lakers Superteam, but Is There the Will?

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IJune 16, 2018

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 27:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers hugs Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs during the game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the San Antonio Spurs on March 27, 2017 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photos by Darren Carroll/NBAE via Getty Images)
Darren Carroll/Getty Images

The news Friday that Kawhi Leonard wants out of San Antonio was nothing we didn't already know, but in a way, it was also a bombshell.

A bombshell from the standpoint of the free-agent-to-be who matters the most: LeBron James.

James was firmly on the record during the NBA Finals with what he'll be looking for if, as universally expected, he declines the player option in his contract and becomes a free agent on July 1.

Point No. 1, in the gospel according to LeBron: "I will still continue to be in championship mode." That statement, by itself, narrows James' potential landing spots to barely a handful of teams.

Point No. 2: "How do you put together a group of talent, but also a group of minds, to be able to compete with Golden State, to be able to compete for a championship?"

Championships. Talent. Minds. Beating the Warriors. This is the laser focus of LeBron James as he prepares to make the next—and perhaps most important—decision of his illustrious career.

In James' soliloquy on the day before Game 4 of the Finals, he went chapter and verse on why he left Cleveland the first time…why he returned…and what factors he'll consider when it comes time to decide where he'll go next.

His repeated emphasis on wanting to team up again with players like Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh—players who "thought the game, more than just playing the game," he said—seemed to point directly to the most obvious avenue: Houston, with James Harden and James' good friend, Chris Paul.

This interpretation rested on the assumption that while the Lakers could offer James the opportunity to play in a marquee market—in a city where he keeps a home—they would also need to ask him to be patient while they wait to add Leonard as a free agent in 2019.

Now, the dynamics have changed. What if Leonard succeeded in forcing the Spurs to trade him to the Lakers—his preferred destination, a league source confirmed to Bleacher Report—while leaving room for not one, but two max free agents to join him?

After missing all but nine games last season, Kawhi Leonard has requested a trade from the Spurs, according to news reports, with the Lakers among the teams he would most like to join.
After missing all but nine games last season, Kawhi Leonard has requested a trade from the Spurs, according to news reports, with the Lakers among the teams he would most like to join.Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

That's a game-changer.

There are a lot of moving parts in this scenario, so let's take them one at a time. First, is it even possible? Are the cap mechanics such that the Lakers could trade for Leonard and still have room for James and one more max player this summer (let's say Paul George for the sake of argument)?

The answer is yes, according to multiple executives with rival teams who have done the math. Such a scenario would be predicated on the Lakers offloading Luol Deng in the trade as well as most of their remaining assets—including Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball. Sending out more salary than they bring back is the only way this would work.

So yes, the math works. The Lakers could trade for Leonard and still have room to sign James and George on the free-agent market. Such a trio would seem to check all of the boxes for James: talented, veteran, cerebral players who are both physically and mentally prepared to compete at a championship level.

This, after all, is what James has told us he wants: a chance to stay in "championship mode." And it is exactly the kind of power move that rival executives fear.

"My guess is, if this is going to be a legacy move for him, he's going to go someplace where he can win," an Eastern Conference executive told B/R. "He's on a run of 10 years as arguably the best player in the league. Not sure I can remember anyone else who can say that. Michael [Jordan] was obviously the closest, but he didn't play for a year-and-a-half. But if LeBron can become the first player to win a championship in three different cities? Nobody else can say that."

Such an accomplishment would be a differentiator for James, who went to Miami because he "didn't have enough," he said, to compete with the Celtics, Spurs and the other powers of the league at the time. He returned to Cleveland because Kyrie Irving was there and Kevin Love would soon be on the way, and he saw an opportunity to deliver on a promise to bring a championship to his hometown.

Now? The stakes are even higher—and the opportunities are dwindling for James to set himself apart, once and for all, in the eternal discussion of legacies in the NBA.

"If I'm the Lakers and LeBron says he wants to come and play with Kawhi and Paul George," another rival exec said, "I do whatever it takes and figure out the rest later."

LeBron James made it clear in his season-ending press conferences that he yearns to play with the type of cerebral players he once did in Miami.
LeBron James made it clear in his season-ending press conferences that he yearns to play with the type of cerebral players he once did in Miami.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press/Associated Press

Which brings us to the next moving part: Does James want to play with Leonard and George? Only James and his close circle of advisers know the answer to that.

If you're asking me? When healthy, Leonard is a top-five player in the league; George is arguably top-10. Both are young enough to carry a load but experienced enough to know what to do with it—and to share the burden. Both are elite and intelligent defenders, attributes that James values. Both can score, which James obviously can do, too—but which he may want to do a bit less as he advances to his 16th season and turns 34 next season.

So yes, they check all the boxes for James.

The final moving part? That would be the Spurs, the franchise that had a stranglehold on modern-day NBA greatness until the Warriors came along. Are R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich going to gift-wrap their franchise player and send him to the Lakers, of all places? Is Popovich going to stand idly by while the evil empire in Hollywood builds the next NBA superteam—at the Spurs' expense?

Don't bet on it.

Then again, don't bet against LeBron's ability to get what he wants out of this latest foray into free agency. He may be 3-6 in the Finals, but he's undefeated in free agency so far.

"I still want to be in championship mode," James said after getting swept by the Warriors. "I think I've shown this year why I will still continue to be in championship mode."

Where? Welcome to the Summer of LeBron, Part III—which just got a lot more interesting.

             

Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.  

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