This year's free-agent crop it loaded with intriguing options and potential fits alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis. With Davis declining his $4 million trade kicker, and the Lakers dumping more salary in the AD deal, Los Angeles now has enough cap room to add a third max player, adding yet another layer of intrigue to what's expected to be a crazy NBA summer.
The best max player on the market is Kawhi Leonard, the league's reigning Finals MVP and the man who dethroned the Warriors and carried the Raptors to their first title earlier this month. While Leonard would give the Lakers a mind-boggling Big Three of LeBron, AD and Kawhi, the backup options aren't so bad either. Kyrie Irving, LeBron's former running mate in Cleveland, is also reportedly a Lakers target. As is D'Angelo Russell, the former Laker who is now open to returning after Magic Johnson's departure.
But the big names and big dreams don't end there. To figure out which available star would be the best fit in purple and gold, The Crossover paneled its NBA experts and asked which third star the Lakers should target this summer.
Rob Mahoney: There are some players effective enough to blot out questions of fit, so talented as to render the premise irrelevant. Kawhi is that sort of player. If you can sign him to a long-term contract, you do—and then you reconceptualize a fit around all that he brings to the table. Leonard is about as good as the best shooters the Lakers could sign: a 41% three-point shooter off the catch, per NBA.com, an outstanding mid-range shooter under duress, and one of the most unyielding shot creators in the league. Whatever perimeter defenders the Lakers might find in free agency, Leonard can do their jobs better and then some. None are more proven in the playoffs, better on the boards for their position, or more stressful for opponents. The argument for the Lakers to split up their cap space among two or three players to better balance their team is fairly persuasive. It just doesn’t really apply where Kawhi is concerned. The Lakers have a three-man team, at present, and Kawhi does pretty much everything. Therein lies the fit.
Andrew Sharp: Let’s be clear: If the Lakers can get Kawhi Leonard they should get Kawhi Leonard, and Kyrie Irving probably falls in the same category. But if those two dream scenarios fall through, I like the idea of gambling on Russell. There are limited options elsewhere—Klay’s probably not leaving, Kemba’s probably going to Boston—and Russell will be cheaper and younger than most everyone else. He shot almost 37% from three–point range on eight attempts per game last season, he could theoretically fit well on the ball or off-ball, and the Lakers need a point guard who isn’t Alex Caruso or Rajon Rondo. Because of the money due to Anthony Davis next summer, this offseason is the best opportunity to build out the rest of the team for the next few years. If the team is already settling for less than perfect options, gamble on a younger star who could pair well with Anthony Davis for the next five years and still help them contend for the next 2-3 years with LeBron James near his peak.
Michael Shapiro: Given that the Kyrie-LeBron breakup is basically a decade old in NBA years, I see little reason why the duo shouldn't get back together in Los Angeles. The best moment of their respective careers came when they were together in 2016 and each player needs a serious reset after a disastrous 2018-19. Kyrie Irving could also probably use a year or two away from the captain's seat.
Irving would be a lethal third option next to James and Anthony Davis. He's an elite shotmaker late in games and an ideal leader of Los Angeles' second units. The Lakers could stagger James and Irving similar to the Harden-CP3 split in Houston, always leaving Anthony Davis with a top-flight playmaker. The apologies have been made and the air is clear. It's time for Kyrie to return to his former partner in crime.
Jeremy Woo: It’s admittedly hard to argue that Jimmy Butler is a better fit for the Lakers than, say, Kawhi, because Kawhi is a better version of Jimmy in most facets, but for the purposes of this exercise let’s just pretend that things like verbally communicating and having perceptible style are important criteria when it comes to playing for L.A. With that said, Butler is an ideal fit for the Lakers, much in the same way he was in Philly — he can create shots when the clock runs down and when the ball stalls, he can take pressure off LeBron to make plays, and he draws attention away from the paint, where Anthony Davis is lurking. Similarly, Butler will have less offensive pressure and more bandwidth to defend, which, when interested, is something he can still do well. The Lakers need a lot of stuff, but another big shot-creator is high on that list.
Matt Dollinger: He's not a perfect fit upon first glance, but Horford's versatility makes him a fascinating fit alongside Anthony Davis. Playing two bigs might not be the modern template for an NBA team in 2019, but you won’t find two bigs more adept on the defensive end and you won’t find many teams capable of lining up with this hypothetical front line. Los Angeles could trot out LeBron and Kyle Kuzma (and another TBD human, maybe Rich Paul?) and have incredible length, versatility and shooting. With Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson going down and the Warriors no longer at full strength, we no longer need to compare every team to Golden State. A Big Three of LeBron-AD-Horford would be the NBA’s new superteam. It wouldn’t have the sparkle of other powerhouses in recent memory, but it would likely, and methodically, destroy the competition.
Mitch Goldich: If the Lakers are looking for a player who fits best with LeBron and AD, the search begins and ends with Klay Thompson. It’s possible that Thompson’s free agency plans changed after he suffered a torn ACL in the Finals, but the injury shouldn’t be a deterrent for any of his suitors—least of all the Lakers.
The best offenses in the current NBA are built to exploit the value of three-pointers, and the league is only trending further in that direction. Elite shooting is currently the only skillset missing from a team built around LeBron and Anthony Davis, and nobody available can shoot like Klay, a bona fide star who can thrive off the ball while LeBron is creating.
So Klay is going to miss most of next year. Maybe all of it. Who cares? This move makes sense in the short term (2020 if Klay can make a late season return and the team can stay in playoff position without him), medium term (the five–year window as Thompson and Davis play out their next contracts) and possibly the long term, if this becomes a home for the rest of their careers, with or without LeBron. Let’s not forget that—because the content cycle is relentless—it’s nearly time for the basketball media to start talking about whether or not LeBron will re-sign in L.A.! Having these two locked up would make it the obvious option.
The Lakers have long been rumored to be the only team that could maybe pry Klay away from the Bay, thanks in part to his dad’s history with the franchise. He’s likely to say no, but the Lakers are always a willing to place a call, no matter how unrealistic. And if he does say yes, he’s the best possible on-court fit.
Rohan Nadkarni: After botching the Anthony Davis trade, the Lakers still managed to open up a max salary slot by basically dumping three players onto the Wizards for the price of a second-round pick. What will Los Angeles do with this gift? If reports are accurate, probably something short-sighted. Rob Pelinka, if you’re reading this, I can’t stress this enough—DON’T BE DESPERATE FOR ANOTHER STAR PLAYER. What should the Lakers do with this newfound cap room? Sign multiple pieces who can be a part of a championship team. Go get Danny Green and Patrick Beverley. Maybe you can somehow get Marcus Morris or Terrence Ross in the mix too. But don’t sign a max guy just for the sake of signing a max guy!
Would Kawhi be an awesome third piece on this team? Sure. Is that realistic? Come on. Kawhi isn’t signing here. KD isn’t signing here. And signing a fickle Kyrie Irving—who eagerly left LeBron once, only to promise himself to the Celtics, only to now be favored to joining the Nets—seems too risky. (Also, did you watch Boston last season?!) The smart play would be signing a couple guys who don’t need the ball in their hands, that can play off Bron and AD.
What would D’Angelo Russell do on this team? You’re really going to have him run pick-and-rolls and take the ball out of your two best players’ hands? Or you can sign someone like Beverley, who can shoot threes and defend without commanding touches offensively. Pelinka keeps falling backwards into success, first LeBron, then Davis, now this cap space. And every time his front office seems to make the worst possible decision in the immediate aftermath. For once, the Lakers need to be sensible instead of getting distracted by the shiny object.
We just saw a Finals in which depth was wildly important. Fred VanVleet swung that series! The Lakers are going to have arguably the best duo in the league just as the landscape shifts away from superteams. With the roster basically a skeleton at this point, Pelinka needs to find as many good contributors as possible instead of hunting another big name and filling out the rotation with veteran minimums. That doesn’t mean signing the Lance Stephensons and Rajon Rondos of the world. But the solid 3-and-D guys will be there for the Lakers this summer. Putting together a deep eight-man rotation will ultimately yield better returns than adding a star whose impact will be muted.