Finding LeBron a Second Star: Should LA Be Looking Internally or to Free Agency?

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterAugust 24, 2018

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 15:  LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers attends a quarterfinal game of the 2018 NBA Summer League between the Lakers and the Detroit Pistons at the Thomas & Mack Center on July 15, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. 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.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Before July's free agency, Lakers executive Earvin "Magic" Johnson put his job on the line, declaring he would step down if his team didn't sign a top free agent within the next two years.

Less than a week later, LeBron James declared his intention to join the Lakers. Now, Johnson is tasked with building a championship contender around the best player in the game.

James has eight straight NBA Finals appearances on his resume and nine in total, including three titles. But the challenge will be heightened in the Western Conference.

In Los Angeles, James also doesn't have a clear second star to play alongside as he did in Cleveland (Kyrie Irving) and Miami (Dwyane Wade). The Lakers may not even have a Kevin Love or a Chris Bosh to fill in as the third star.

Instead, Johnson is banking on two hopes: that Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart develop quickly in games that matter, and that the Lakers can lure another All-Star next summer.

Debating the first point may successfully fill the time while waiting for training camp to open next month, but there's no answer to be had until the team hits the court.

It's arguable that Ingram will fit in perfectly as a do-it-all partner for James, that Kuzma will be a voracious scorer, that Ball will average double-figure assists, that Hart will force his way into starting and/or closing games.

Or maybe Ingram's development with be stifled with the ball out of his hands, Kuzma will give up as many points as he scores, Ball will struggle to stay healthy and has a broken shot, and Hart will prove to be nothing more than an average bench player.

Brandon Ingram (left) and Bam Adebayo
Brandon Ingram (left) and Bam AdebayoWilfredo Lee/Associated Press/Associated Press

The answer is probably somewhere in between, but the Lakers are cautiously optimistic heading into the season opener Oct. 18 versus Portland. The first question will be answered in degrees, day by day over the course of the next year, but the bigger question ahead is who can the Lakers acquire as a second star—and how?

Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka were deliberate in their offseason moves, making sure to preserve spending power for July 2019. Outside of James and a few rookies, the team only gave out one-year contracts to veterans such as Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley.

That's an entertaining list of personalities. The basketball fit is more of an uncertainty.

Caldwell-Pope is the best shooter on the list, although Beasley can light it up as a scorer. Rondo and Stephenson are experienced playmakers but aren't shooting threats. McGee's range may be higher above the rim than it is from the field.

What they bring to the court is important through 2018-19 but may not be relevant after that. The Lakers may need to renounce them all just to get to $24 million in cap space based on the NBA's current salary-cap projection of $109 million.

That figure would jump to almost $36 million if the Lakers waive and stretch out the final year on Luol Deng's contract ($18.8 million) to $6.3 million over three seasons. Deng hasn't been a part of the team's rotation for more than a season. If they can trade him outright to a team with cap room next July (probably costing at least a first-round pick), Los Angeles could get to about $43 million in spending power.

Call it "Plan A": the Lakers with James, Ingram, Ball, Kuzma, Hart and rookies Moritz Wagner, Svi Mykhailiuk and Isaac Bonga go shopping for a maximum-salaried free agent.

Whatever money they have left would go to filling out the roster with veterans. The team would also have its room exception to spend an additional $4.8 million, along with minimum contracts ranging from $900,000 to $2.6 million, depending on a free agent's years of NBA experience.

The more difficult question is "whom?"

Kevin Durant
Kevin DurantMarcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press/Associated Press

James may already be recruiting, working out earlier in the week at UCLA with both Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. It's unclear if Durant has any desire to leave the Northern California, but he can opt out of his contract next June. It's also uncertain how Leonard takes to Toronto after a trade from San Antonio.

Durant will be eligible to earn around $38 million from both the Warriors and Lakers in a new deal, but Golden State can pay him $221 million over five years, while Los Angeles would be limited to $164 million over four.

In recent years, Durant has taken less than his available max to help the Warriors build a championship roster. If he were willing to do the same to join the Lakers, the team would be able to sign him without trading Deng. (Stretching wouldn't open enough space for Durant's full salary.)

Leonard would be slightly easier for the Lakers with a starting salary of almost $33 million, and he would fit without a Deng trade too. The Raptors can re-sign the All-Star forward at $190 million over five years; the Lakers can pay up to $140 million over four.

Other high-level 2019 free agents, each at the same price point as Leonard, include Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins, Kemba Walker and Irving.

A reunion with Irving is unlikely given that he and James didn't part on the best of terms in Cleveland.

Thompson would be the second choice on the Warriors after Durant. Either way, he may be a stretch if former Laker Mychal Thompson (father of the Warriors sharpshooter) is to be believed. He recently told reporters, "Klay's going to retire in the Warriors uniform."

Cousins, given a year to recuperate from a torn Achilles, may be worth a max contract. And the Warriors won't have the ability to re-sign the big man to a significant contract next summer.

Outside of Leonard, Cousins and Butler may be the most likely to switch teams. Per a source close to Butler, he's open to the idea of moving on from the Timberwolves to play alongside James in Los Angeles.

Jimmy Butler
Jimmy ButlerDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press/Associated Press

In recent years, the Lakers were overlooked by every top free agent. When the 2016-17 schedule was announced, the team only had 23 national television appearances (ABC, ESPN, TNT and NBA TV). That number jumped to 35 last year, and now the team will be aired nationally 43 times. That's three more than the champion Warriors.

Not only will the Lakers be auditioning their young players for a starring role alongside James, but they'll also be showcasing them to a wide audience. If they're willing to part with one or more of their young players—be it before the trade deadline in February or after the season around the draft in June, or even next July—they may be able to acquire a second star without dropping below the salary cap.

Perhaps by trading someone like Ingram with either an expiring contract like Rondo, Stephenson and/or Caldwell-Pope (and possibly Deng), the Lakers may be able to add a player like Leonard. That would enable them to re-sign any remaining veterans while preserving their mid-level ($9.2 million) and bi-annual ($3.6 million) exceptions to add additional players in free agency.

Presumably, the Lakers prefer Plan A, in which each young player performs so well that they make themselves untouchable and attractive to a potential star free agent. There's also an argument to be made for sacrificing one or more to stay over the salary cap and go the trade route.

This summer, Johnson and the Lakers showed patience once they landed James. How long they can afford to stay patient will play out both on the court and behind the scenes throughout the upcoming season.


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