Past Managerial Oversights Haunted Lakers in Kawhi Leonard Chase

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterJuly 7, 2019

Los Angeles Laker players LeBron James, center, and Anthony Davis, right, take in an NBA summer league basketball game between the New York Knicks and the New Orleans Pelicans, Friday, July 5, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)
Steve Marcus/Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — Saturday should have been a day of celebration for Los Angeles Lakers fans. The team finally executed its trade with the New Orleans Pelicans, pairing Anthony Davis with LeBron James. The Lakers can boast two of the best players in the league, and yet Kawhi Leonard turned his back on what could have been a superteam, choosing instead to join the Los Angeles Clippers.

Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka then rushed through Plan B signings, including DeMarcus Cousins, Danny Green, Quinn Cook and two returnees (JaVale McGee and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope). The team will also bring back Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso and add Jared Dudley and Troy Daniels. Depending on exactly how the deals are structured, Los Angeles may still have its $4.8 million room exception to add to the mix.

While the Lakers suddenly have considerable depth, they didn't get Leonard, and that's a tough pill to swallow.

Dating back to the team's last playoff appearance in 2013, the year Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles tendon, the Lakers have been trudging through a rebuild. Lottery after lottery, they've groomed players with the hope they'd either develop into stars or, more realistically, become the trade bait needed to build a superteam.

The goal was James, Davis and Leonard, but the Lakers fell short. They may still have enough to win, and a title would certainly make the sacrifices worthwhile. Still, they gave up a lot of talent through the yearsplayers better than those scooped up on Plan B.

D'Angelo Russell
D'Angelo RussellChris Szagola/Associated Press/Associated Press

Pelinka, with former executive Earvin "Magic" Johnson, traded D'Angelo Russell, the team's No. 2 pick in 2015, to dump the contract of Timofey Mozgov. To be fair, Mozgov was inherited, but the Lakers gave up an eventual All-Star to open up cap room they hoped to use on Paul George last summer to join James. They also chose not to give Julius Randle an extension, even though his agent, Aaron Mintz of Creative Artists Agency—who represented not only Randle and Russell but also George—was willing to accept a contract starting at $12.4 million.

Alienating Mintz's young clients contributed to George's decision to re-sign instead with the Oklahoma City Thunder. When Leonard needed a star teammate to join him with the Clippers, Mintz and George requested a trade from the Thunder, setting up the blockbuster Friday night. Russell, who was a backup plan if Leonard wasn't receptive, chose to sign with the Golden State Warriors (via trade) instead of waiting for the Lakers.

Along the way, Los Angeles also moved on from a long list of draft successes, including Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Ivica Zubac, Thomas Bryant and Svi Mykhailiuk. Some are better than others, and they're primarily role players, but then so is Green and Cook and Caldwell-Pope. Cousins was a star before he tore his Achilles in January 2018, and he could be an important reason why the Lakers are successful this year if he can stay healthy.

Landing Davis nearly emptied the Lakers' cupboard both in the present and the future, leaving just Kyle Kuzma as the lone "kid" standing. Gone are Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones. The Lakers also traded multiple future firsts.

Davis may be worth it, but without Leonard, the Lakers' two stars aren't on the same timeline. James will be 35 in December. Davis turned 26 in March. A tandem of Davis and Leonard (28) would have carried the Lakers as James' career winds down. Perhaps they can add another superstar in free agency after James' contract ends following the 2020-21 or 2021-22 season (player option).

But that's another uncertainty, especially when Davis can opt out of his own contract after this season. He probably will, either to re-sign with the Lakers or devastate the franchise by moving on. That he shares an agent with James in Rich Paul of Klutch Sports suggests he'll stay long term, but what if he finds himself disillusioned with the franchise?

That's the worst-case scenario, outside of injury. The Lakers should be strong enough to break their playoff drought and may even contend for a championship this June. A lot has to go right, and dating back to Bryant's Achilles injury, it hasn't.

Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi LeonardBen Margot/Associated Press/Associated Press

The team has given up all of its young players save Kuzma. The Lakers won't have many opportunities ahead in the draft, with the Pelicans owning many of their picks, but they won't be high selections if they can finish consistently with at least a top-five record. That only gets ugly if Davis leaves after a year, but in the meantime, the paucity of future draft picks could hinder the Lakers' ability to make trades.

The franchise went all in and got two-thirds of the way there. Years of dumping young players opened far more cap space than the team needed. It would have made sense if Leonard made a different choice, and chasing him wasn't a mistake. It's the way the Lakers went about it, hoarding cap space instead of developing additional tangible trade assets.

Regardless, Los Angeles will move forward, and it's up to James and Davis to lead the team to a brighter future. The Lakers can't afford anything less.

        

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

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