With the top two point guards seemingly already off the board a full day ahead of the start of free agency Sunday at 6 p.m. ET, the market for D'Angelo Russell has become one of the summer's most intriguing developments.
Russell will not be back with the Brooklyn Nets, who appear poised to agree to a long-rumored max deal with Kyrie Irving, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski. Irving will leave the Boston Celtics, who seem all but set to replace him with another All-Star in Kemba Walker, per Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium. That leaves Russell's fate up in the air, and an unlikely possibility has presented itself: a reunion with the Los Angeles Lakers.
On Saturday, Wojnarowski reported that the Lakers, fresh off creating a max salary slot by expanding their agreed-on trade for Anthony Davis with the New Orleans Pelicans, have been in contact with Russell's representatives, and that interest is mutual.
This scenario would have seemed outlandish as recently as six months ago, given Russell's rocky history with the Lakers. His rookie season in 2015-16 was marred by an incident involving Snapchat and then-teammate Nick Young, which resulted in a loss of trust from his teammates.
After his second season, Russell was traded to Brooklyn in a deal to unload Timofey Mozgov's contract. On the guard's way out the door, former Lakers president Magic Johnson made some pointed comments about Russell's maturity and lack of leadership ability.
Johnson is gone from the Lakers, at least officially, after his shocking resignation at the end of the regular season. Russell is coming off a career year in Brooklyn, including his first All-Star appearance and a second-place finish for the NBA's Most Improved Player award. Despite that, the Nets seem set on moving on to a bigger name in Irving. The Lakers, meanwhile, want a third star to combine with Davis and LeBron James.
On a surface level, a revisited Lakers-Russell partnership makes some sense. But how L.A. general manager Rob Pelinka manages this offseason will make or break the team's championship window with James and Davis. The danger of chasing a big name just to avoid the perception of striking out is real.
Per the New York Times' Marc Stein, the Lakers believe they have a shot to sign reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, by far the best player on the free-agent market now that Kevin Durant is out for the next year while he recovers from a torn Achilles. Leonard will, and should, be the Lakers' first priority. If they can land him, it hardly matters what the rest of the roster looks like—James, Davis and Leonard are enough of a Big Three to make them heavy favorites in the Western Conference.
Would Russell have the same transformative effect? No, because you can count on one hand the amount of players in the league as good as Leonard.
The Lakers arguably have two of them already. Now, they need a team.
The fate of the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals underscored the dangers of building a roster too top-heavy. Once Durant and Klay Thompson (torn ACL) went down, Golden State didn't have much depth beyond Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, and that talent gap was too much to overcome against Leonard's Raptors.
If the Lakers sign a player to a max contract with their newly created cap space, Pelinka will have very few tools available to fill out the rest of the roster. As of now, only James, Davis and Kyle Kuzma are under contract; add another max player to that mix, and a veteran at the $4.7 million room mid-level exception, and it will leave 10 roster spots to be filled by players on minimum deals.
It's possible some of those spots will go to quality veterans who are looking to take a huge discount to chase rings. But with the amount of money being thrown around this summer, that could be too much to count on.
If the Lakers lose out on Leonard, they'd be better served by spreading around that $32 million in cap room to multiple veteran role players. Toronto's Danny Green, the Clippers' Patrick Beverley and Indiana's Bojan Bogdanovic all make sense next to James and Davis, and they will cost far less money than another star who doesn't move the needle as much as Leonard.
James is going into his age-35 season and missed the first significant time of his career last season with a groin injury. By the end of the year, he will likely have played the third-most minutes in NBA history. Davis has stayed relatively healthy the past two seasons, but he's had injury concerns throughout his career. Both superstars will likely be subject to load-management plans during the season. The Lakers will need quality rotation players to fill those gaps.
Russell had a terrific season in Brooklyn, answering many of the preexisting concerns about his game and establishing himself as one of the league's best up-and-coming guards. He's going to cash in on that year and earn a lot of money somewhere. But the Lakers should proceed with caution before they enter the bidding for second- and third-tier stars. They have too many other needs to address, and not much margin for error.