The Lakers did the hard part. They’ve secured the signature of the best player in basketball and will be back in the hunt for the playoffs after the longest postseason drought in club history. Now comes the harder part: building a team of secondary stars and role players around him that will sustain through the next three or four years and beyond. That process started immediately, with the reported signings of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Lance Stephenson, and JaVale McGee quickly following in the hours after LeBron James made this historic announcement that he will be moving to Los Angeles to continue his career with the Lakers.
The Lakers’ offseason is nowhere near complete and not just because they only have 11 players under contract for the 2018-19 season. Rumors are still swirling about a possible trade for San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, who has continuously made it clear that he wants nothing more than to play in Los Angeles, a sentiment that has likely only grown stronger in the wake of their acquisition of James. The Lakers can make a deal with the Spurs to bring Leonard home this offseason, but the urgency to do so isn’t where it was 24 hours ago. In the days leading up to free agency, much of the reporting around their offseason had centered on securing another star, then coming to James for his commitment. Acquiring Leonard became a two-for-one – doing so would immediately allow them to sign James – and the Spurs knew that and used it to their advantage in negotiations, asking for the world from Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka in exchange for their signature player. With the James signing in the bag, the leverage tilts back toward the Lakers, who are no longer fearful of coming away from this offseason empty-handed. The length of James’ contract also allows them to be patient – signing a 1+1 would have given him the chance to leave next season, but a minimum of three years in purple and gold affords them the opportunity to exercise caution in negotiations with San Antonio, confident that they’ll be able to sign Leonard in 2019 if things break down. Of course, that’s what they thought about Paul George when they opted against trading for him from Indiana last offseason and that decision cost them his signature, as he chose Oklahoma City over Los Angeles this year.
Whether Leonard arrives in Los Angeles this year or next, the Lakers have dual goals in mind for this offseason – build as good a team as possible around James and ensure 2019 flexibility to use on that secondary star, whether that’s Leonard, Charlotte’s Kemba Walker, or Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler. To that end, the three one-year contracts to which they agreed with Caldwell-Pope, Stephenson, and McGee certainly accomplish the latter, but it’s hard to imagine that this was the best use of their resources in regards to the former. Specifically, the Stephenson signing is completely out of left field – in what world does he make sense as a fit next to James? As a minimum signing, sure, might as well take a flier on him and see if he can be LeBron Lite off the bench as a primary creator when James sits, but for the full Room Exception, on Day One of free agency, when there are other players on the market who would be better next to James, it was surely a curious choice. McGee is much more in line with where Stephenson should have been: a player in a very specific role taking the minimum to suit up with LeBron James on a potential championship contender. He’s shown over the last two years in Golden State that he can bring appropriate energy and athleticism as a rim runner and lob threat, which will be useful to the Lakers from a minimum signing. Caldwell-Pope is the 3-and-D wing/guard who’s a strong role player for any team in the league and while he had an up-and-down first year in Los Angeles, the theory of how he fits on the team matches with James’ skill set. Using $12 million of their cap space to bring him back might be questionable in a vacuum, but with his connections to James through Klutch Sports Group and Rich Paul, it makes all the sense in the world that he’s back with the Lakers.
From here, the Lakers still have the world at their feet. A Leonard trade, re-signing Julius Randle and a few smaller deals to fill out the 2018-19 roster, or carving out more cap space (up to $31 million if they renounce Randle and trade Deng) to go after more big names are all viable paths for Johnson and Pelinka at this point and while all of Sunday’s signings give the indication that they are looking to build toward 2019 free agency, pivoting away from that should the right player become available shouldn’t be a difficult task at all.