How Can the LA Lakers Get LeBron James a True Co-Star?

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterJuly 4, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James takes questions at a press conference after the basketball team's practiced during the NBA Finals, Thursday, June 7, 2018, in Cleveland. The Warriors lead the series 3-0 with Game 4 on Friday. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

After years of chasing stars, the Lakers landed the biggest one in the game Sunday when Klutch Sports Group issued a single-sentence release declaring LeBron James "has agreed to a four-year, $154 million contract" with Los Angeles.

The Lakers are coming off a 35-win season, quite the improvement over the 22.8 they averaged the previous four but still a middling year for one of the most heralded franchises in sports. They'll burst back into prominence upon James' arrival, but do the Lakers have enough to continue his streak of eight straight NBA Finals appearances?

They don't on paper. Not with the Warriors up the Pacific Coast, who now boast a starting five of Stephen CurryKevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins. James bought into the vision of Lakers executive Earvin "Magic" Johnson, but it may well take more than a few days for the front office to build a championship roster around its new All-Star forward.

For now, James will have to play without a second star. Paul George chose to stay in Oklahoma City. Per Marc Stein of the New York Times, the Lakers passed entirely on Cousins, even at a discounted price. Both Chris Paul and Durant are returning to the Rockets and Warriors, respectively. DeAndre Jordan is leaving the Clippers for the Mavericks.

Who have the Lakers brought in to play with James? Fellow Klutch Sports client Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will be back for one season at $12 million.

He was the Lakers' most valuable player last season; not on the court, but as the bridge-builder to agent Rich Paul, who sat at multiple games with team owner Jeanie Buss. No, she wasn't tampering, but the two were able to form a relationship that helped lead to the Lakers' biggest free-agent signing since Shaquille O'Neal in 1996.

Lonzo Ball and LeBron James
Lonzo Ball and LeBron JamesJason Miller/Getty Images

The Lakers will add quirky role player Lance Stephenson, reportedly at $4.5 million but more likely at the Lakers' $4,449,000 room exception (after the team uses all available cap space). JaVale McGee will also ink with Los Angeles at the veteran's minimum ($2.4 million).

The next day, the Lakers parted ways with restricted free agent Julius Randle, renouncing him for cap room. Randle will play for the Pelicans, who in turn lose guard Rajon Rondo to the Lakers (one season, $9 million).

Note the trend. The Lakers have committed $27.8 million in one-year deals, putting the franchise in the position to spend once again next summer when a long list of free agents could be available, including Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Love, Durant, Cousins and Thompson.

The NBA's current salary projection for the 2019-20 season is $109 million. With Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Moritz Wagner, Luol Deng and James under contract, the Lakers could have roughly $30 million in spending power. That number would climb if the team either traded away the final $18 million owed to Deng or stretched his salary out at $6 million for three seasons.

It is significant that the Lakers can get to the highest maximum salary possible of $38.2 million next summer without needing a trade. That's their leverage.

Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi LeonardEric Gay/Associated Press/Associated Press

The Spurs may ask for a king's ransom for Leonard, but if Los Angeles is patient, it can keep all of its young kids and bring in Leonard to play with James as a free agent.

Yes, a similar argument was made last year for George when the Pacers were looking to trade him. The Lakers chose patience, and the All-Star forward fell in love with the Thunder. Leonard may do the same if he's traded elsewhere, but he's not the only potential target in 2019.

As long as James believes in Johnson's vision, he'll be patient.

Meanwhile, the Lakers will get the chance to try out each of their young, developing players to see who fits well with James. The team still has up to $5.7 million in available cap space, but that number can grow to $15.5 million if the Lakers stretch out Deng. It can reach $22.8 million if they trade him outright to a team like the Hawks, with at least a first-rounder attached for their trouble.

The Lakers won't make either move without a specific free agent or trade target in mind.

If the Spurs lower their asking price on Leonard, and if the Lakers are willing to give up Ingram, Los Angeles can open enough cap space by stretching Deng to do a one-for-one deal with San Antonio. If not, perhaps a player like Damian Lillard asks out of Portland. Perhaps Butler, who may not be happy in Minnesota, per Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, asks for a trade.

Brook Lopez
Brook LopezBrandon Dill/Associated Press/Associated Press

Given the Lakers' flexibility next summer, they should operate conservatively. Bring back Brook Lopez at $5.7 million if he's open to stay.

A starting lineup of James, Ingram, Caldwell-Pope, Ball and Lopez with Kuzma, Rondo, Hart, Stephenson and rookies Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Wagner off the bench may be able to earn home-court advantage in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

The Lakers need a Robin to James' Batman if they hope to truly challenge for a spot in the Finals, but they can bide their time. Johnson has stressed his team is on a two-year plan to add stars. He's already landed the biggest one in the league.

If the Lakers can get Leonard at a reasonable price in a trade or steal away one of the Warriors' major pieces like Durant or Thompson in free agency next summer, that could catapult Los Angeles to favorite status.

Lillard is a player to keep an eye on. He has three years left on his contract, but the Blazers have struggled to make progress in the West.

The pressure to get a second star is real, but it's far from urgent. The Lakers have the time to both groom their developing players and selectively shop in free agency and the trade market before the 2019-20 season.

         

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.

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