LOS ANGELES — On a night where the Los Angeles Lakers were the talk of the league after failing to trade for NBA megastar Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Co. put on their blinders, played a basketball game and took down the Boston Celtics on national television, 129-128.
But one game—as feel-good, emotional, downright necessary as it was—doesn't change the fact that L.A. came up with a big-time loss at Thursday's trade deadline.
What's next for the Lakers?
For a clue, start with James' selections as All-Star captain, picking Kevin Durant first, followed by Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard. When choosing reserves, James took Anthony Davis, Klay Thompson and Damian Lillard.
Perhaps his choices were coincidental, but James is calculating. The Lakers can have enough cap space to sign one of Durant, Irving, Leonard or Thompson outright this July, each expected to be an unrestricted free agent.
Without their first-round pick in June, the Lakers can get to $38.7 million. Durant can earn up to $38.2 million—that's not random happenstance. The Warriors' All-Star forward recently ended a media boycott, lambasting those constantly speculating on his future. Naturally, that wouldn't have been an issue had Durant signed a long-term deal with Golden State this past summer.
Whether he would have interest in playing in Los Angeles with the Lakers is anyone's guess, but James appears ready to start lobbying over All-Star Weekend with Durant as his top selection.
Irving's maximum salary (like Leonard's and Thompson's) is $32.7 million, which fits in a little more comfortably with the Lakers' space this summer. The hope would be to pry him away from the Boston Celtics, reuniting James with the point guard he won a title with in Cleveland. The two ended on bad terms but have recently reconciled.
The general buzz around the NBA is that Leonard is seriously considering the Los Angeles Clippers, but James would certainly welcome one of the best two-way players in the league. Thompson would be an ideal fit with James as a high-scoring shooter who doesn't dominate the ball.
The bonus of signing Durant, Thompson or Irving is that it simultaneously weakens the rival Warriors or Celtics.
As far as James' selection of Lillard, the Lakers would love to acquire him via trade should he become available from the Portland Trail Blazers (although there's no sense he will be anytime soon and his contract runs through 2020-21).
And then there's Davis, whom the Lakers made a full-on blitz to acquire this past week after his agent, Rich Paul, informed the Pelicans that he would opt out after the 2019-20 season and not-resign with the franchise. Per Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles offered just about everyone on its roster not named James (including Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart) but was rebuffed.
With trade rumors overwhelming the team, the Lakers were blitzed on Tuesday in a 136-94 loss to the Indiana Pacers. Now coach Luke Walton, who may also be fighting for his own job security, needs to rebuild a fractured team chemistry to try to make a playoff run.
To try to help that cause, the Lakers traded Svi Mykhailiuk and a second-round pick to the Detroit Pistons for veteran shooter Reggie Bullock. The team also sent Ivica Zubac and Michael Beasley to the Los Angeles Clippers for stretch forward Mike Muscala. None of the moves will make a significant impact on the Lakers' spending power this summer. It remains to be seen if they'll help the team climb to at least eighth in the Western Conference. With 14 players under contract, they may look to add a veteran free agent like Carmelo Anthony or Wayne Ellington, who was waived by the Suns on Thursday.
The Lakers will probably renew the Davis chase this summer, but they'll have more competition, notably from the Celtics who can offer multiple first-round picks along with promising young players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
The hope on the Lakers' side is that Irving either chooses the Lakers or another team, like the New York Knicks, weakening the Celtics enough that they might consider abandoning the pursuit of Davis. They would want Paul to let Boston and all other suitors know that Davis will only stay long-term with the Lakers to try to poison the trade market.
If Davis' wish list includes the Milwaukee Bucks, Knicks and Clippers, the Lakers will still need to make a competitive offer even if the Celtics, as the presumptive favorite, bow out of the running should they lose Irving.
The Lakers can hope to pair two stars with James, which would entail signing a top free agent like Durant, Irving or Leonard in July, and then execute a trade for Davis. If the Lakers are willing to include almost all their young players in a deal to New Orleans (Mo Wagner, Ingram, Ball, Kuzma and Hart), they'd be able to match Davis' salary to boast a team built around three All-Stars.
Depending on where the Lakers' first-round pick lands this June, they might be able to come up with a few other combinations to land Davis and a top free agent, but Los Angeles won't have significant flexibility. Another factor is Davis' $4.1 million trade bonus this summer, which he may have to waive to enable a deal to the Lakers.
Of course, that's the best-case scenario for the Lakers in which not only a star agrees to come but the Pelicans also don't send Davis to the Celtics. If the Lakers are rejected by high-level free agents, they may need to sign players to one-year deals in anticipation of signing Davis outright in 2020.
Or they could move on altogether and try to build the best team they can around James and the young core, perhaps looking at a center like Nikola Vucevic or DeAndre Jordan. Other quality players could hit the trade market like Bradley Beal, but given that James didn't pick Vucevic in the All-Star draft and selected Beal last as the only reserve remaining, perhaps they're not as high on the Lakers/James' priority list.
If the Lakers learned anything through what proved to be a humbling trade deadline, it's that they're not going to get help from other organizations. Building a championship-level team around James is going to be difficult, even starting with one of the best players in the league. The Lakers will have opportunities this summer, but as this past week showed, success is not a given.