As the Los Angeles Lakers ventured into a precarious offseason—through the playoff-less first year of LeBron James, past the bizarre departure of Magic Johnson and all its aftermath—one truth became clear in rival front offices around the league.
If the Lakers wanted a top-shelf star to lift some of the burden from James' shoulders next season, they had better pull off a trade for Anthony Davis.
"It might be their only chance to get a star this summer," a high-profile agent told Bleacher Report.
And so the news Saturday that L.A. had finally landed AD in a trade with the New Orleans Pelicans, as ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported, was more than a coup. It was a necessity. Even before the catastrophic injuries suffered by Warriors stars Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson during the NBA Finals, the Lakers' hopes for a big free-agent score were dwindling, multiple league sources told B/R.
Though free-agent meetings technically can't be arranged until the start of the moratorium, which begins at 6 p.m. ET on June 30 this year, it's standard practice for teams to emerge from the Chicago draft combine in May with at least some soft commitments from agents. But as one Western Conference executive put it, the Lakers left Chicago last month "empty-handed."
There were a few factors. It didn't help that the Lakers won only 37 games and missed the playoffs—James' first non-playoff season since his second year in the league. Johnson so awkwardly stepping down from his job as team president—and then throwing shade at almost everyone in his wake—did nothing to dispel prospective free agents' fears about the lack of leadership and organizational stability in the purple-and-gold recesses of Staples Center.
But a trip to the draft lottery and organizational dysfunction weren't the biggest factors resonating with stars who might otherwise consider the Lakers, said two people who are close to multiple top-level free agents.
The biggest factor? LeBron.
"It's not that he got hurt; it's that even when he wasn't hurt, they felt like for the first time in his career, he didn't look like LeBron—especially defensively," a longtime Eastern Conference executive told B/R. "If you're a top-level player and you're going to L.A. to play with LeBron, and it's the first time you don't feel like he's actually LeBron, that's not going to get better."
James will turn 35 in December of his 17th NBA season, and he's coming off a year in which he played a career-low 55 games. Everything about his career to this point has defied belief, especially when it comes to his durability. But he's at the stage when decline happens fast.
Even before Durant and Thompson went down with injuries that are expected to cost them all or most of the 2019-20 season, the Lakers were not on their short list of teams to consider this summer, two people familiar with their plans told B/R.
There's a feeling among rival executives that winning a title and another Finals MVP in Toronto could cause Kawhi Leonard to veer off his intended path of the Raptors being a one-and-done scenario on the way to his desired home on the West Coast. But if Leonard is going to leave, the destination will be the Clippers, two executives said.
ACL injury or not, the Lakers weren't holding out hope for a free-agent meeting with Thompson, even though he was born in L.A. and spent his high school years in Orange County.
So if you're wondering why the Lakers surrendered Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and three first-round picks—including the No. 4 pick in next week's draft—that's why. Their chances of landing a comparable player in free agency were grim.
"They were very scared," the Eastern Conference executive said.
Yet in today's NBA, fortunes change faster than the weather. Less than 48 hours after the Raptors won their first championship and the Warriors began coming to grips with an offseason of massive uncertainty, the Lakers have an All-Star to pair with LeBron and have been installed as favorites to win the 2020 title.
In fact, Westgate Superbook listed the Lakers as 9-2 favorites before L.A. agreed to the deal for Davis; L.A.'s updated odds are 3-1. The Clippers, who don't even have Leonard yet, are 7-1, while the Raptors are 10-1.
What does that tell you? (Sorry, Raptors fans.)
In the immediate aftermath of the Davis news, Marc Stein of the New York Times reported the Lakers will target Hornets point guard Kemba Walker in free agency. The word in league circles is that Walker is in play, especially if the historically frugal Hornets balk at paying him the supermax (five years, $221 million).
It's not known how Walker feels about L.A., but a person who knows him well told B/R the Lakers don't have to worry about competition from the Knicks or Nets; Walker is not interested in returning to his native New York, the person said.
Then there's the ever-unpredictable Kyrie Irving, who could certainly benefit from a reunion with James in L.A., and Jimmy Butler, who is equally unpredictable and has long prioritized market size over other, less glamorous factors.
Which brings everything full circle, back to the man around whom the last decade-plus of NBA basketball has revolved: LeBron. There are two people who clearly do not share the concerns about James' impending decline, and they happen to be the two most important people in the consummation of Saturday's blockbuster trade.
They would be Anthony Davis and Rich Paul, who represents both Davis and LeBron. Paul, incidentally, would vehemently object to any concerns about LeBron no longer being LeBron. Indeed, when we spoke recently, he correctly pointed out that when James injured his groin on Christmas Day against the Warriors, the Lakers were a playoff team and James was in the early discussion for MVP.
Hard to argue with that.
Given all the factors, though—the Warriors losing two of their biggest stars, the Raptors potentially losing their Finals MVP, and smart free agents looking past the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and instead focusing on the details—it's also difficult to call this trade anything but what it was for the Lakers.
Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KBergNBA.