Ranking LeBron James' Ideal Superstar Teammates Next Season
Despite a nightmare 37-45 season that left LeBron James missing out on the playoffs for the first time since 2005, the Los Angeles Lakers are in a good position to acquire another star this summer.
With about $32.5 million in projected cap space, the Lakers can afford a max free agent. With the No. 4 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft, along with Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma, they have enough trade ammunition to go after some of the biggest names on the market as well.
Finding players who can fit alongside James should be easy. We've seen how well he's played (and won) with dynamic guards (Dwyane Wade, Kyrie Irving) as well as offensive-minded big men (Chris Bosh, Kevin Love).
While Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard will be this summer's biggest free agents, neither one seems destined to sign with the Lakers and play second fiddle to James. Instead, we're looking at players the Lakers have at least a reasonable chance of signing or trading for due to their desire to win/and or land a max contract, all while being OK sharing the court with James.
This is how the Lakers' superstar big board should stack up, assuming neither Durant nor Leonard wants to hop on board.
No. 7: Chris Paul, PG
How Lakers Can Pair Them: Trade for Paul using cap space
If Los Angeles strikes out on every other player on this list, it should see how much (if anything) the Rockets want for Paul.
Ignoring his contract for a moment, Paul was fifth in the NBA with 8.2 assists per game last season. He was also the only player to average at least eight assists and two steals, and he also put up 15.6 points per game. The Rockets were 7.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court last season, proving the 34-year-old still has a few good years left.
James and Paul, along with Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade, are longtime friends, with James famously saying he would sacrifice financially to play with them.
"I really hope that, before our career is over, we can all play together," James told Bleacher Report's Howard Beck in 2016. "At least one, maybe one or two seasons—me, Melo, D-Wade, CP—we can get a year in. I would actually take a pay cut to do that."
If Wade decides to unretire, this could finally be their chance.
While Anthony and Wade may not have much left, the pairing of James and Paul should be good for another couple of seasons. James has never played with a passer as gifted as Paul, who would take pressure off him as a playmaker.
The problem, of course, is Paul's contract. Due over $124 million the next three seasons, Paul has one of the NBA's most expensive deals. The Lakers would be paying James and Paul a combined $75.9 million next season alone, with increases each of the following two years.
The Rockets shouldn't be expecting much (if anything) in return for Paul, and simply trading him into the Lakers cap space would open roughly $24 million for Houston to go shopping with this summer. That flexibility alone could be worth it.
If all else fails for the Lakers in free agency, they should go after Paul.
No. 6: Jimmy Butler, G/F
How Lakers Can Pair Them: Sign Butler to four-year, $140.6 million deal
According to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, James has already had contact with Butler, who's set to become an unrestricted free agent in a few weeks.
Coming off a season in which he averaged 18.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers, Butler won't turn 30 until September and is sure to attract his share of max offers this summer.
After spending his last eight winters in Chicago, Minneapolis and Philadelphia, Los Angeles likely sounds nice.
A four-time All-Star, Butler would become the Lakers' new starting shooting guard and see plenty of time at small forward in Los Angeles' small lineups. He's still a very good defender and could take a lot of pressure off James on that end of the floor.
One possible drawback with Butler is his average outside game, as he's only connected on 34.1 percent of his career three-pointers. His 36.8 percent mark on catch-and-shoot threes last season suggest those numbers could rise alongside James, if only by a marginal amount.
If the Lakers keep Lonzo Ball in their long-term plans, team shooting could still be an issue if Butler is the big free-agent prize.
No. 5: Klay Thompson, SG
How Lakers Can Pair Them: Sign Thompson to four-year, $140.6 million deal
This would be a dream scenario for the Lakers.
Put one of the best shooters in NBA history next to James, who is also a 6'7" elite defender with championship experience, all while weakening your biggest challenger for a ring.
Thompson is already a five-time All-Star at age 29 and has never shot under 40.1 percent from three in his eight professional seasons. No offense to Ray Allen, but Thompson would be the best pure shooter James has ever shared the court with.
The problem? Convincing him to leave the Warriors.
Golden State can offer Thompson five years and $190 million, about an extra $50 million in guaranteed money over any other team. He'd also be leaving one of the most structurally sound front offices in the entire league for one that, well, has to be among the worst.
If the Warriors offer Thompson anything less than the max and the Lakers can at least get a meeting, L.A. can pitch him on a larger role, more shots and the opportunity to snag passes from James. Thompson has witnessed firsthand the past four years what James is capable of in the postseason, and not even Stephen Curry or Draymond Green can deliver pinpoint passes the way the 15-time All-Star can.
While it's unlikely to happen, the Lakers should still go all-in on Thompson.
No. 4: Bradley Beal, SG
How Lakers Can Pair Them: Trade based around No. 4 overall pick, two of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart
Beal gets the slight nod over Thompson given he's a better playmaker (career-high 5.5 assists in 2018-19) and four years younger (25). Trading for Beal means giving up assets but also gives the Lakers cap space to go chasing a third star in free agency as well.
While a natural 2-guard, Beal could play on or off the ball as a shooter or playmaker next to James. His 25.6 points per game tied Kemba Walker for 12th in the league.
Unlike others on this list who are either in or slightly past their primes, Beal may still be years away from reaching his peak. That timeline fits in well with the 34-year-old James, who should be happy to share the scoring and playmaking load. This keeps the title window open longer than someone like Paul, Butler or Thompson, as Beal could be hitting his prime just as James starts to take a step back.
Cost could be an issue, however. The Wizards haven't committed to a rebuild yet, despite finishing just 32-50, and could be without John Wall for the entire 2019-20 season following a ruptured Achilles.
Beal won't come cheap. Getting the No. 4 overall pick should be the Wizards' first priority, and they should also seek a pair of the Lakers' young talents as well. A package of Ingram, Kuzma and the fourth pick could at least be the starting point of a conversation.
No. 3: Kemba Walker, PG
How Lakers Can Pair Them: Sign Walker to four-year, $140.6 million deal
A James-Walker pairing could have happened in Cleveland, as the Cavs were willing to trade the No. 8 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft if James would have re-signed, per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe.
Now, the Lakers have a chance to acquire Walker without having to give up anything.
Strikingly similar to Kyrie Irving, Walker would give James a high-scoring sidekick from the point guard position. The 29-year-old is coming off All-NBA third-team honors, following a 25.6-point, 5.9-assist, 4.4-rebound season. He can take over an offense like few others in the league can and has drastically improved as a shooter from all areas in his eight seasons.
The problem with getting Walker to join the Lakers (or anyone else) is his love for the Hornets and the five years and $221.3 million they can offer him now that he's qualified for supermax status.
"Oh no question, Charlotte's definitely my first priority," Walker told The Athletic's Jared Weiss. "That's where I've been for eight years and that's all I know. Not many people get a chance to play for one NBA team throughout their career. When I go on my Instagram, I see, 'Kemba leave! Kemba get out of Charlotte!' People don't understand, when they say you need to go 'here' and win, that winning is not guaranteed anywhere."
While this is true, Walker has a much greater chance to win alongside James, Ingram, Kuzma and Ball than he does Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller and Nicolas Batum. The Hornets have done a terrible job surrounding Walker with talent, something even the Lakers are guaranteed of doing a better job of simply by having James already on the roster.
Thompson and Beal would be great additions, but Walker is an even better ball-handler and initiator of the offense—a role James has been stuck filling far too often throughout his career. During a long regular season, the Lakers need to keep James as fresh as possible, and having a dynamic point guard like Walker to run the offense would help them do just that.
No. 2: Kyrie Irving, PG
How Lakers Can Pair Them: Sign Irving to four-year, $140.6 million deal
Irving leaving the Celtics to re-up with James seemed impossible less than a year ago.
Now? Not so much.
With Boston among the league's most disappointing teams this season, combined with Irving's call to apologize to James, the door for the two to reunite appears cracked open.
Three years together was never enough, as the two went to three Finals, winning one (and could have won two had Irving been healthy in 2015). They remain the only teammates to each score 40 points or more in a Finals game.
At 27, Irving seems far more ready to accept the responsibilities that come with playing alongside James, something he probably didn't realize as a 22-year-old.
His game is also a perfect fit for the bright lights of Staples Center, as Irving's ball-handling ability remains second to none. He's grown both as a passer (career-high 6.9 assists last season) and as a defender, his two biggest weaknesses as a point guard while in Cleveland.
With the two already being spotted hanging out in L.A. together, a James-Irving reunion should be at the top of the Lakers' list.
No. 1: Anthony Davis, PF/C
How Lakers Can Pair Them: Via trade based around No. 4 overall pick, PG Lonzo Ball, SF Brandon Ingram, PF Kyle Kuzma
It's easy to forget just how dominant Davis was becoming last season before his trade request.
In his first 41 games, Davis was averaging an eye-popping 29.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.6 blocks and 1.7 steals. This was all before turning 26.
As good as Irving, Walker, Beal, Thompson and others would be alongside James, none come close to the superstar status of a healthy and motivated Davis. Put James and Davis together on the floor, sprinkle in a few shooters for good measure, and that's the foundation of a team that can go deep into the playoffs.
While the Lakers could wait one more year and simply sign Davis as a free agent, that would mean James waiting until age 36 for his next serious title run and running the risk that Davis would fall in love with whatever team ends up trading for him now, a la Paul George with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Though he only has one year left on his contract, Davis' services will likely require the No. 4 overall pick as well as Ball, Ingram and Kuzma.
The perfect Lakers summer? Make the trade for Davis and then chase another star on this list in free agency.