Nearly at the 20-game mark, the 11-8 Los Angeles Lakers look like they could be a force in the Western Conference with a little more help. How tempted would team president Earvin "Magic" Johnson be to make a play for All-Star guard Bradley Beal?
"Beal would be a perfect fit next to LeBron," an Eastern Conference scout said. "He's a much better shooter than [Brandon] Ingram, and LeBron needs shooters."
Although Beal is only shooting 32.8 percent from three-point range this season, he's hit 39 percent over his six-plus years in the league on 5.5 attempts per game. Ingram is at 34.5 percent this year and is only a 33 percent shooter for his career on 2.1 tries per night.
The difficult part for Los Angeles is finding a trade package to entice the Wizards that also fits within the Lakers' long-term plans.
ESPN's Zach Lowe said, "I think what [the Wizards are] asking for Beal ... makes him functionally not available."
That may be fine for Johnson, who seemed giddy amid high-fives on the World Series broadcast in October on Fox Sports, exclaiming, "I'm going to get another superstar next summer!"
Johnson seems comfortable in his long-term plans to chase a star like Kevin Durant in free agency or eventually make a trade for Anthony Davis—or possibly both. If there's a thin line between confidence and delusion, Johnson's success landing James this past July suggests it's the former.
Even if he's wrong, Johnson is going to make decisions from his own point of view until he fails. He's not going to change course based on anyone else's perception of the Lakers' chances moving forward.
But what if that voice is from James, should he again feel frustrated by the Lakers' progress?
He has already had his moments of doubt, as Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes reported in November, saying: "I almost cracked [last week]. I had to sit back and remind myself, '[Expletive], you knew what you were getting yourself into.' This process has been good for me. I just have to continue being patient."
James is 33 years old (34 in December) with significant NBA mileage on his body in his 16th season. Johnson must weigh how much of James' prime he is willing to risk on the maybes of tomorrow—because maybe Durant stays with the Golden State Warriors, and maybe Davis signs a long-term extension with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Maybe a veteran scorer like Beal would give James a more reliable, polished running mate than Ingram.
"It's too early to tell for Ingram," a Lakers executive said. "Where was [Beal] at the same age?"
Four years ago, Beal averaged 15.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game as a 21-year-old. He shot 40.9 percent from three-point range on 4.1 attempts. He made a big jump two years later to 23.1 points per night.
Ingram, at 15.8 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists, probably won't ever be as consistent an outside shooter as Beal, but Beal won't ever have Ingram's 6'9" height and 7'3" wingspan.
It's the dreaded "P" word—potential. How many executives have lost their jobs because they stuck with what a player could be instead of what they are?
"Getting LeBron ... makes it interesting," the executive said. "Obviously, we didn't draft the guys [we have on the roster] knowing we would get him."
All this assumes the Wizards would trade Beal for Ingram, the Lakers' prospect with the most upside. Los Angeles would need to include significant salary to balance a deal, presumably with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Michael Beasley (neither can be traded until Dec. 15).
Caldwell-Pope can block any trade outright thanks to a quirk of the rules as a player who re-signed on a one-year deal. He also shares an agent with James in Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, which may functionally make him a made man as a Laker.
If so, Los Angeles would probably have to substitute Rajon Rondo, who is highly valued as a team leader, along with other contracts to make the numbers work.
Ingram for Beal would be a difficult decision for the Lakers. If the Wizards also ask for Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and/or Josh Hart, Johnson would certainly pass.
Beal has two additional years on his contract at $27.1 million and $28.8 million. Adding his salary to the Lakers' books instead of Ingram's reduces the team's maximum spending power in July from roughly $38 million to just $19 million.
That's not enough to sign Durant or even fellow Warrior Klay Thompson, who can earn up to a projected $38.2 million and $32.7 million for 2019-20, respectively.
Beal is the better player today, but his numbers four years ago weren't far off from where Ingram is now. It's not simply swapping Ingram's upside for Beal's reliability; it's also a shot at pairing James with both Ingram and Durant.
Even if he's not as high on Ingram, who was drafted by the previous regime with Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss, is Johnson willing to give up on the team's cap-space plan?
Johnson and the Lakers may not be able to pair James with enough talent to win, but they may have a year to work with before it comes to a head. Durant (and Thompson) may re-sign with Golden State. Kawhi Leonard could stick with the Toronto Raptors or join another team entirely.
Landing James was revolutionary for the Lakers, but banking on another star in free agency may be reckless unless Johnson is privy to some sort of inside information fueling his confidence.
With no guarantees, the Lakers should at least consider a call to Washington to gauge the asking price for Beal.