For the third time in his career, LeBron James has used the power of free agency to switch teams.
But what's interesting about his latest move is it's the first time he's willingly joined a team devoid of a single star. By signing with the Lakers (for four years and $154 million), LeBron, for the first time in almost a decade, now finds himself on a team multiple moves away from contention.
Of course, that doesn't mean he'd be content to watch others collect rings or that Lakers team president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka can now sit back and relax. No, with LeBron comes expectations, and responsibility, so the onus is now on them to surround LeBron with a suitable supporting cast.
The question is how best to do so.
"Go get Kawhi," said an Eastern Conference front office staffer, a sentiment echoed by multiple NBA people Sunday night.
LeBron's willingness to sign a four-year deal (with the final year a player option, according to reports) changes the equation and tilts the power back toward the Lakers.
A few days ago, the question the Lakers were asking themselves was how much to surrender for Leonard; now, it's whether they should surrender any of their young players, or would they be better off waiting a year and signing Leonard next summer?
There's no obvious answer, and recent NBA history doesn't provide any insight. You can point out that the Lakers erred last summer by not trading for Paul George. Or look back to 2011, when the Knicks sold the farm for Carmelo Anthony instead of waiting a few months to sign him, a move that prevented them from ever surrounding him with a proper supporting cast.
If the Lakers hold off—and limit their free-agent signings to one-year deals—they could have enough cap space next season to sign Leonard. Doing so would hold them back this year, but thanks to the combination of depth and tradable assets, they'd be better in 2020. The 2019 free-agent class is stuffed with adequate contingency plans—Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Al Horford, Kemba Walker—in the event Leonard follows George's path and re-signs with whatever team that trades for him. That road is even more enticing.
Then again, there's something to be said about taking advantage of opportunities the moment they arise and focusing on the present, in a prudent, non-reckless way. Think of this as the anti-Dallas Mavericks approach. Mark Cuban, you'll remember, liquidated his title team in the summer of 2011 so he could clear cap room and go star-chasing. He never got his man, and the Mavericks haven't won a playoff series since. Worse, they wasted the remainder of Dirk Nowitzki's prime.
Which is to say: Just because LeBron's given them a three-year window doesn't mean the Lakers should sit back. They don't have to capitulate to every Spurs demand. That Leonard made it clear he has no intention of playing anywhere else—and that was before the Lakers reeled in LeBron—has already scared off other suitors, meaning the Lakers could probably trade for him without surrendering all their young talent.
Anyway, bringing in Leonard this offseason and pairing him with LeBron—and alongside the re-signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in a versatile, wing-heavy lineup—would immediately catapult them past the majority of the Western Conference's teams. Leonard would be arguably the best player LeBron has ever played with. His prolific wing defense could be unleashed on Kevin Durant and allow LeBron to save his energy for offense. His ability to generate offense would lighten LeBron's load, similar to how Kyrie Irving once did. Leonard also drilled 42.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot triples two years ago, per NBA.com, an important number for playing alongside LeBron.
Of course, Leonard himself wouldn't provide enough help. That's why the Lakers would be wise to roll the dice on Boogie Cousins as well.
By renouncing their rights to restricted free-agent Julius Randle and either stretching or trading Luol Deng, the Lakers can create about $24 million in cap space—a number that would seem to be enough to entice Cousins, whom, according to The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears, the Lakers have already spoken with. The ideal move for the Lakers would be to offer Cousins a one-year deal (with perhaps a team option tacked on). Doing so would protect them from tying themselves to Cousins'—shall we say mercurial?—attitude and also solidify them—via the ability to offer an additional year and extra cash—as the favorites to re-sign him next summer if they so desire.
Basically, it'd be a low-risk, high-reward deal—and one that could also benefit Cousins, who thus far doesn't appear to have many suitors. Anthony Davis, according to a league source, wants the Pelicans to re-sign Cousins, and perhaps that forces their hand. But the best thing Cousins could do for his reputation, and bank account, is join the Lakers and disprove the notion—shared by many NBA executives, scouts and coaches—that no team with him on the roster can do any sort of real winning.
"Him alongside LeBron would be really intriguing," said an Eastern Conference scout. "If anyone could help him reach his ceiling, LeBron would be the guy."
In other words, it would be an ideal gamble—one in which both sides would be best served if a deal were to come to fruition.
And the one-year contract would allow the Lakers to preserve their cap space going forward, which would not be the case if they attempted to pry away a more steady big man like Clint Capela.
Cousins' defense is awful, he'd have trouble hanging with the Warriors in a playoff series and he's way too careless with the ball. But he's a solid three-point shooter, a bully in the post and a savvy passer. His skill set from the center position would mesh perfectly with LeBron's game. He could space the floor a bit, too. More intriguing, though, would be how his size and strength could be utilized in a league where teams are increasingly going smaller and smaller. He might have trouble sticking with Steph Curry on pick-and-rolls, but how would the much smaller Draymond Green limit Cousins in the post?
Could a team built around LeBron, Leonard and Cousins, with Caldwell-Pope and other minimum players, push the Warriors? Probably not. But let's not forget what LeBron's done against Golden State with worse supporting casts. With the Lakers, he can play alongside an MVP-level stud in Leonard, an All-Star in Cousins, a solid three-and-D wing in Caldwell-Pope and perhaps a young talent like Kuzma.
But the keys are Leonard and Cousins. Surrounding LeBron with that duo would make the Lakers title contenders while also allowing them to maintain their future flexibility; simultaneously checking those two boxes is something the Cavaliers were never able to do. That the Lakers can is precisely why they should be aggressive over the next few weeks. To be passive now would be to fail LeBron—and the basketball gods.
Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter @YaronWeitzman, listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here and sign up for his newsletter here. Salary info provided by Basketball Insiders.