It wasn’t Kawhi Leonard who left the Lakers in a lurch, but a marketplace that couldn’t bear to wait. Any team even vaguely in the running for Leonard’s services had good reason to plan their entire summer around him. Players of his caliber are worth it, as the Raptors can now attest. Yet running an offseason on the schedule of any one free agent is a fraught enterprise; every day that passes comes at a cost.
Stars and role players alike flew off the board as 29 other franchises—each with their own goals and their own urgency—competed for their services. Whatever elaborate flow chart the Lakers might have had detailing back-up plans and back-up plans to back-up plans was likely torched in the opening frenzy of free agency. By the time Leonard made his decision to join the Clippers five long days later, the market was so picked over that the Lakers roster began to effectively build itself.
Danny Green, whose free agency was tied directly to Leonard’s, sprung on a two-year, $30 million offer from the Lakers as soon as his former teammate was confirmed to be leaving the Raptors. A quick agreement followed for scoring guard Quinn Cook, fresh off a Finals run with the Warriors. The Lakers dipped back into their cap space to re-sign Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for a reported two years and $16 million, a wise choice given the other wing players available. The free agent pool had already been drained to puddles. For that reason, it seemed only a matter of time before the Lakers struck a deal with JaVale McGee, who agreed on Sunday to a reported two-year, $8.2 million contract that could fit the room mid-level exception, if the Lakers so choose.
With the remaining guard options especially dire, the Lakers returned Rajon Rondo at the veteran minimum—the best ball-handler available, if far from an ideal fit. The theme of these late-stage signings is acceptance. Even if Leonard had joined the Lakers, many of their roster spots were destined to go to players on minimum contracts. This was a logistical inevitability after stripping the roster bare. Losing out on Leonard changed everything, but not that; there is space now for Green, Caldwell-Pope and another minor move or two, but by the time the Lakers could actually use that space, so many of the most enticing options were already gone. Frankly, many of the adequate options were, too.
DeMarcus Cousins was a glaring exception. Few potential stars are available to sign for $3.5 million, but Cousins is currently neck-deep in extenuating circumstances. Some executives were never fans of his approach or his game to begin with. Others were scared off by his Achilles injury in 2018, or his ruptured quad in the 2019 playoffs. All signs point to a healthier Cousins by the start of next season, and for a team in the Lakers’ position, any risks involved are easily accepted. This is a team that badly needs bodies: guards to fill out the rotation, creators to relieve LeBron James, bigs to protect Anthony Davis from playing too many high-leverage minutes. Cousins isn’t perfect, but he’s so clearly superior in so many ways to the alternative at his price point that the Lakers had to spring at the chance.
There’s just no time for the Lakers to be precious. Sign the enormous and highly skilled center now, sort out the fit later. Grab what shooters you can find. Re-up Rondo, because if you don’t, you could wind up with Cook—or a player like Trey Burke or Shelvin Mack—playing a role of outsized importance. The rest of the league already had its first, second and third passes through the marketplace. Once the Lakers were free to shop with more than the veteran minimum, they had to make decisive agreements with the best supporting talent they could find.
The result is one of the strangest LeBron teams every constructed. The games of Davis and James are perfectly symbiotic. Every other Laker adds certain skills and unavoidable complications: shooters who are painfully limited, a point guard who can only play with the ball in his hands, a few too many defensive liabilities, an odd mix of perimeter players and a center looking to prove his worth—again—while working as a third or fourth option. Go through the Lakers’ roster—from LeBron and AD to Jared Dudley and Troy Daniels—and you’ll find plenty of sensible additions and understandable decisions. It’s not hard to see the logic in how Green or Dudley became Lakers. Evaluating the roster in full, however, shows this group for what it is: a collection of spare parts, thrown together in the time allotted. It’s more challenging than it should be to piece together five-man lineups in which all the components involved actually make sense together.
The two superstars involved are so good—and so good together—that all of this will only hold the Lakers back at higher level of competition. Give James and Davis competent teammates and a reasonably spaced floor and they will ruin the night of the majority of the teams they run up against. But when evaluated against teams like the Nuggets, Rockets or the newly formed Clippers, their roster’s comparative lack of internal logic will leave them searching. Whatever the ceiling is for these Lakers, it won’t be easy to reach—not when getting the better players on the floor together demands undermining at least one of them in some way. Certain players will be forced into uncomfortable cross-matches on defense. Others will see their best skills marginalized on offense. There’s at least some optionality for coach Frank Vogel in terms of who starts and who plays where, but seemingly few solutions clean enough to make these Lakers an immediate powerhouse.
They’ll have to settle, now, for just being dangerous—and sort out the rest as they go.