Can the L.A. Lakers Steal One of the Warriors' Stars in Free Agency?

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterApril 5, 2019

DENVER, CO - OCTOBER 21: Kevin Durant #35, Klay Thompson #11, and DeMarcus Cousins #0 of the Golden State Warriors react to a play during the game against the Denver Nuggets on October 21, 2018 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)
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LOS ANGELES — The Golden State Warriors hope to return to the NBA Finals for the fifth straight season, looking for their fourth title since 2015. With DeMarcus Cousins healthy—rounding out a monster starting lineup with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green—Golden State's run looks like it may go on forever.

Or it may end this summer, when Cousins, Durant and Thompson are all expected to be free agents (assuming Durant opts out of the $31.5 million last year on his contract). The players may agree to stay together or choose to seek out other challenges.

The buzz from various executives, scouts and media members suggests that Durant is ready to move on. Thompson, if offered the max, will stay. If not, he too could exit. The Warriors may not be able to match market value for Cousins.

If the gossip proves accurate and any of the three are indeed looking to relocate, the Los Angeles Lakers will readily acquire a star player to pair with LeBron James. They could have enough to pay Durant his maximum salary of $38.2 million, although that might require trading their lottery pick (projected at 12th overall) in June's NBA draft. Another option would be to draft a player who commits to playing overseas for at least one season, like Bogdan Bogdanovic, who was selected 27th in 2014 by the Phoenix Suns but played with Turkey's Fenerbahce until he joined the league for the 2017-18 season (after a trade to the Sacramento Kings).

Thompson and Cousins are both eligible for up to $32.7 million, which is a bit more manageable for the Lakers. Cousins signed with Golden State this past summer on a one-year, $5.3 million contract while still recovering from an Achilles tear. The Warriors will only have his non-Bird rights in July, which limits them to a maximum offer of $6.4 million (assuming they remain over the luxury tax).

If both Durant and Thompson leave, the Warriors would gain some flexibility to keep Cousins, either with cap room or the full $9.2 million mid-level exception. But as things stand, he's expecting a big contract this summer and won't be getting it from Golden State.

That doesn't necessarily mean he's gone. He can choose to stay at a discount for another season and then wait and see if the franchise has the means to reward him with a larger long-term contract. But would he turn down a four-year, $140.6 million contract to join the Lakers as the big man next to James, only to stay for $6.4 million with the Warriors?

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

The Lakers may have their eyes on stars like Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis (via trade), Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Durant and Thompson, but Cousins would be an interesting fallback option. Center is the team's weakest position, considering both JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler are impending free agents (and Ivica Zubac was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers).

Cousins was injured in January 2018. Naturally, his individual numbers were going to decrease—especially when he shares the court with so many scorers in Oakland—but he's been steady for the Warriors, contributing 16.1 points and 8.0 rebounds in 25.5 minutes a game.

The Lakers would need to surround James and Cousins with shooters and defenders. While Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram fit the bill defensively, neither is a reliable outside shooter. Kyle Kuzma would give the Lakers a dynamic offensive frontcourt alongside James and Cousins. But that's a very questionable group defensively.

Durant's length and agility allow him to guard virtually every position on the floor, and he's an elite source of offense, averaging 26.5 points with 5.8 assists a night. Stopping both James and Durant would be a nightmare for teams. He is Plan A, but would he leave a contender in Golden State to join the Lakers? Come to Los Angeles, but to the Clippers? Or does he head east to join a team like the New York Knicks or Brooklyn Nets?

Bleacher Report's Howard Beck recently reported, "Rival executives will tell you, without hesitation, that Durant is bound for the Knicks."

In December, Durant criticized the media's coverage of James in a piece from B/R's Ric Bucher, saying, "I get why anyone wouldn't want to be in that environment because it's toxic."

John Hefti/Associated Press

Perhaps Durant's true feelings about joining James in Los Angeles are misunderstood. Or maybe where there's smoke there's fire, and he simply has goals that do not include the Lakers.

Overqualified as a Plan B, Thompson is closer to a Plan A-minus. In addition to his defensive ability along the perimeter at 6'7", Klay is an elite three-point shooter, hitting 40.3 percent in what he would likely call a down year. His ability to score without dominating the ball would be an ideal fit alongside James, who draws the attention of so many defenders. Thompson would be a coup for the Lakers, given their struggle to space the floor.

The financial burden may lead to change in Golden State. If Durant, Thompson and Cousins all return, the Warriors could be looking at a payroll higher than $170 million, which would yield a stunning repeater tax penalty in the $163 million range. Can any NBA franchise turn a profit with a combined $333 million in payroll and tax?

Nick Wass/Associated Press

If the Warriors balk at the price, the Lakers will be ready to offer Durant or Thompson a contract. Thompson's father Mychal Thompson won two titles with current Lakers team president Earvin "Magic" Johnson in 1987 and 1988. Los Angeles could be a viable alternative for the shooting guard, but if Golden State does lose Durant, it probably won't let Thompson walk at any price.

That's why Cousins may be the most realistic option of the three for Los Angeles. The Warriors just don't have the means to pay him his value this summer. The Lakers will undoubtedly pursue other options first, but he may be the answer if they strike out on their top targets.

If so, the Lakers would be better off paying Cousins top dollar on a shorter deal. Two seasons would be ideal, but three instead of four might be the compromise, depending on the market.

To date, Cousins doesn't have a history of winning in the NBA. He's had trouble in the past with his temper, specifically with officials, but no significant off-court incidents. He'll turn 29 before next season, but can he stay healthy after the Achilles tear? L.A. may be wary given its firsthand experience with Kobe Bryant's repeat injury woes following a similar ruptured Achilles.

Durant and Thompson are no-brainers for the Lakers, but Cousins is a more difficult call for Johnson if that's where the summer leads.

Regardless, Los Angeles will need to renounce its rights to Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Mike Muscala and Lance Stephenson, at a minimum, to have room for Thompson or Cousins. To get to Durant's max money, Reggie Bullock, McGee and Chandler would be renounced as well, and the Lakers might not be able to keep their first-rounder. The team can look to trade some of its young core to open additional space, but it would need a "yes" from one of the aforementioned Warriors before making any costly moves.

Another option for Durant would be to come to Los Angeles for Thompson money, but it's a stretch he picks the Lakers at all, let alone at a discounted price.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

James has three years left on his deal, two should he choose to opt out early. The Lakers do not have a lot of time to build a championship-caliber roster, which makes this summer hugely significant.

Durant or Thompson would be major victories. Cousins would help elevate the team to the playoffs, but Johnson and his front office would have a lot more to do to get the Lakers back on top.


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