LOS ANGELES — LeBron James put on a show Wednesday night at Staples Center, dominating the Portland Trail Blazers for 44 points, falling one assist short of a triple-double and validating the Los Angeles Lakers' recent spate of victories. That same night, Jimmy Butler made his debut with the Philadelphia 76ers, having gotten his escape from the Minnesota Timberwolves after the long, uncomfortable stretch that followed his trade demand.
Earlier in the summer, Butler had interest in joining the Lakers, but Los Angeles didn't have the contracts available to match salaries for a swap.
Butler was on L.A.'s list but lower than the likes of Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard.
Executives Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Rob Pelinka could have made stronger plays for Butler or Leonard, whom the San Antonio Spurs traded to the Toronto Raptors, or previously Paul George, whom the Indiana Pacers dealt to the Oklahoma City Thunder. But the Lakers held on firmly to prospects Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart.
With James on board, they're set up to land a second star, but that path still has peril.
The danger in waiting for a player to sign in free agency instead of trading for an established star is clear: he could fall in love with his new destination and re-sign, as George did in Oklahoma City. Both Butler and Leonard remain possibilities as unrestricted free agents in July, but the Lakers have held their cards for a bigger hand.
If they're playing poker, one of the game's first lessons is patience. That only made Johnson's moment of doubt—chewing out coach Luke Walton as the team stumbled to integrate James into the young core—perplexing. (Never mind that Walton had lost Brandon Ingram and Rajon Rondo for half the season, at the time, to suspension).
It didn't make sense that Johnson lost his patience, given that it's his roadmap for a franchise that has prioritized cap space over short-term gratification.
The Lakers have passed on multiple opportunities over the past year to cash out their youth movement for a veteran star. Johnson sacrificed Julius Randle, D'Angelo Russell, Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson to make sure his team has the spending power to land two stars. Thus far, the plan has worked in that it landed James this past summer as a free agent—even if L.A. couldn't get a meeting with George.
The New Orleans Pelicans' Davis stands atop the Lakers' list, but he won't hit free agency until 2020. The Pelicans would have to trade him to Los Angeles, which should be considered a significant stretch unless Davis says he won't re-sign in New Orleans.
Davis recently joined Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, who represents James. A pairing in Los Angeles would give both players the opportunity to unseat the Golden State Warriors, and the 25-year-old Davis would eventually replace the older James (33) as the Lakers' headliner.
Naturally, that should sound great to Johnson and Pelinka. It's less appealing to New Orleans general manager Dell Demps, who'll undoubtedly offer Davis a supermax extension in the neighborhood of $240 million. If Davis refuses, Demps will have a long list of offers that might trump what Los Angeles is willing or able to send in trade.
The recent Golden State Warriors blowup should give the Lakers hope that either Durant or Thompson could be poached. Draymond Green and Durant recently had words at Staples Center in a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. The Lakers project to have just enough salary-cap space in July to pay Durant a max salary, starting at roughly $38 million.
Durant has shown he's willing to turn down a bigger contract offer to move on to what he believed to be a better situation, having left the Thunder to sign with the Warriors in 2016, and that he is happy to play alongside other stars like Stephen Curry and, the Lakers would hope, James.
Regarding Thompson, everything he's said suggests he'll stay in Golden State.
"It's hard to walk away from something—you were here when it started and yeah, you just want to stay on the train as long as you can," Thompson told ESPN.com's Nick Friedell in September.
Thompson has a strong relationship with Walton, who was an assistant with the Warriors. His father, Mychal Thompson, won titles with the Lakers with Johnson in 1987 and 1988. Klay's shooting ability would be a tremendous fit alongside James.
Perhaps the recent Warriors meltdown passes, the team wins another title and the core stays together. But if not, the Lakers have the money to pursue either Durant or Thompson, and they will—aggressively.
Lillard had an understanding with the team's late owner, Paul Allen, that if a time came when the guard wanted out, the franchise would try to facilitate a move to his liking. Lillard hasn't made that request, and it's unclear if that verbal agreement still holds.
Given that Lillard is under contract until 2021, general manager Neil Olshey should feel no obligation to gift-wrap his best player for the Lakers to help James win titles in Los Angeles. Why would he?
Landing a star via trade can be both precarious and expensive, which may be why the Lakers' front office has prioritized free agency—hit or miss. Johnson doesn't wake up every morning and assume he'll miss. That's not his style, and a lifetime of success suggests he's right.
Perhaps this confidence is hubris, but landing James probably earned the Lakers the benefit of the doubt. We'll see if Johnson can stay patient and deliver a second star in as many years.