LOS ANGELES — Is it all or nothing for the Lakers?
Will it be deemed a success by navigating the pending trade with the New Orleans Pelicans and opening enough cap room for a maximum-salaried player this summer?
Or would the Lakers be better off with a younger All-Star, like D'Angelo Russell, using their additional cap space to flesh out a deeper roster?
The answers are subjective, but the immediate question is how general manager Rob Pelinka proceeds over the coming weeks. Los Angeles may have only $24 million to spend if Pelinka cannot get the Pelicans or the Atlanta Hawks—who will receive the No. 4 pick (De'Andre Hunter) through a subsequent pending deal with New Orleans—to help the Lakers maximize their cap space.
The two separate trades could be amalgamated into a multiteam swap, but only if the Pelicans and Hawks agree to participate. Adding the contracts of Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones would help the Lakers execute the trade for Davis after they first use their cap room in free agency.
That would increase the price in trade from Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and draft considerations to six players and picks, but it would get Los Angeles to a maximum of about $32 million in cap space before the trade. That may be just short of paying the likes of Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Leonard or Irving their maximum $32.7 million, but it's awfully close.
The chance to form a star powerhouse in Los Angeles may be enough to entice someone like Irving to team up once again with James, even if he's getting a slight haircut in starting salary. The buzz around the league, however, is that Irving will leave the Boston Celtics to sign with the Brooklyn Nets ("the worst-kept secret of the summer," according to one executive), possibly to team up with Kevin Durant despite his Achilles injury.
If so, the Nets may need to renounce the rights to Russell, making him an unrestricted free agent. That might open the door to a reunion. Russell was dumped by former executive Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Pelinka in a trade to the Nets in 2017, shedding the contract of Timofey Mozgov. The Lakers got the No. 27 pick (Kyle Kuzma) along with Brook Lopez, who has since moved on to the Milwaukee Bucks.
The trade opened space for the Lakers to land James and one additional star last summer, but the team was rebuffed by the likes of Paul George. It'd be interesting if the cap space created by trading Russell was ultimately used to sign him back (at up to his maximum of $27.3 million in the first season).
Per Brian Lewis of the New York Post, "Brooklyn might have qualms about singing the enigmatic Irving if he isn't bringing the injured Durant with him."
If that's the case, Irving could pivot to Los Angeles, which could set up an either/or situation for Los Angeles.
Russell's breakup with the Lakers wasn't pretty, but it's difficult to hold grudges in this league. With Johnson gone, some close to Russell have indicated he may be open to the idea if Brooklyn isn't in the picture.
The decision may come down to the Nets choosing between Irving and Russell, or perhaps Irving selecting Los Angeles or Brooklyn, and then Russell going with the Lakers over the field. But which of the two is best for Los Angeles?
Irving earned an NBA title playing alongside James with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He's a six-time All-Star and one of the best point guards in the league. Russell made his first All-Star appearance this past February but has yet to build anything close to Irving's resume given his fewer years in the league.
One executive said: "They're both divas, but Irving takes it to another level. Russell may be high-maintenance, but he's no Kyrie."
Never mind; the Lakers aren't a franchise to shy away from strong, unique personalities. Irving is still just 27, although he's had some knee issues, and so has the 23-year-old Russell.
But beyond the talent, Irving is going to demand the maximum, while the Lakers could at least try to get Russell to sign at $20 million (up to $86 million over four years), especially if the Nets let him go.
That would give Los Angeles almost $13 million left to spend. That may be enough to go after a starting center (perhaps with Kuzma to the bench) but ultimately, the Lakers are bereft of guards. Could they pull Patrick Beverley away from both the Los Angeles Clippers and other suitors with a four-year, $55.9 million contract, starting at $13 million?
More plainly, would the Lakers be better off signing Irving or a combination of Russell and Beverley?
Beverley would give the team a defensive-minded leader, along with outside shooting. Russell, who is also a strong shooter, would feast given the attention required to defend both James and Davis. So too would Irving, giving the Lakers a tremendous core offensively but without the same depth and toughness Beverley could provide.
The Lakers may not get the choice. Russell will be restricted to start July, but that may not last long if Irving picks the Nets. Yet the younger point guard is an example of how Pelinka may be able to win the offseason by not going after the bigger star.
The same questions exist if the Lakers invest their entire war chest into Walker or Butler.
Beverley is just an example of the depth the Lakers could pursue by spreading their cap space out instead of putting it all into one player. Other available free agents include Ricky Rubio, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph, Derrick Rose, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Reggie Bullock, Terrence Ross, Danny Green, Trevor Ariza, Lance Stephenson, Seth Curry, J.J. Redick, Kyle Korver (if released by the Memphis Grizzlies) and Bojan Bogdanovic, to name a few.
Now, if Leonard were willing to leave the Raptors for the Lakers, forget depth: get the Finals MVP and fill out the roster with the team's room exception (roughly $4.8 million) and minimum contracts.
The summer free-agent crop is also flush with big men like Al Horford, DeAndre Jordan, Nikola Vucevic, Jonas Valanciunas, JaVale McGee, both Brook and Robin Lopez, Dewayne Dedmon, Boban Marjanovic, Enes Kanter, Nerlens Noel (player option), Joakim Noah and Tyson Chandler, to name some.
The value of centers has diminished over recent years, and the Lakers may be able to land one for a discount at $4.8 million. Not Horford, but perhaps Robin Lopez, McGee, Dedmon or even Jordan, if he wants to return to Los Angeles to chase a ring.
The Lakers could pivot entirely and invest in Horford to round out a tremendous frontcourt along with James, Davis and Kuzma, but then how would they fill out their backcourt?
Instead, the Lakers may be best off if Irving chooses the Nets and they bring back the player they drafted second overall in 2015. That and adding depth like Beverley would give them a more balanced guard core.
The first step is Pelinka making sure the deal for Davis is favorable to the Lakers' cap. By adding James last season and now Davis this July, the team is clearly in win-now mode. Anything less will be considered a failure, but that comes with the job. The Lakers' chances will be set in motion by Pelinka's decisions over the next two weeks.
Bleacher Report NBA Draft expert Jonathan Wasserman joins colleague Howard Beck on the Full 48 podcast to assess this week's draft results.