The Los Angeles Lakers didn’t just pry open LeBron James’ championship window. They just blasted the window straight off the frame.
The NBA happens fast, doesn’t it? Five days ago, Kevin Durant was returning to the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the NBA Finals and the two-time defending champs looked for a three-peat. In one of the most disastrous NBA weeks in recent history, Durant ruptured his Achilles and three days later, Klay Thompson tore his ACL. The Lakers didn’t even let the Raptors’ championship parade begin before they took back the frontpage.
After reportedly trading for Davis in exchange for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, three first-round picks (including this year’s No. 4 pick) and two unprotected pick swaps, the Lakers didn’t just catapult from a lottery team to championship contenders. They should be heavy favorites.
Davis is that good. As I detailed in the BIG Number in February, Davis becomes the best teammate James has ever had. The trade deadline soap opera and the Pelicans’ firesale obscure the fact that Davis had a monster season, posting a 30.3 player efficiency rating, which would be the highest for any James teammate, including Dwyane Wade, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Chris Bosh. Pick any metric from the pile and they all agree that Davis is one of the best players in today’s game -- and that was a down year.
We can debate all day whether Wade’s peak was or will be better than the Brow at his best, but James joined up when Wade was 28, entering the downside of his prime. Davis, who just turned 26 in March, is just entering his prime. We likely haven’t seen peak Brow. And now he gets to catch feeds from James and capitalize on the King’s gravitational pull.
A core of James, Davis and Kyle Kuzma is already NBA Finals caliber, but the terrifying thing is that the Lakers will likely have a spot open for a third max-level player. Kuzma, who turns 24 next month, is too old to be a foundational prospect that a team like the Pelicans would covet in their rebuild. Ball and Ingram, on the other hand, are each 21 years old and will fit in nicely with Zion Williamson and whomever the Pelicans select at the No. 4 slot.
But for a team ready to win right now? Kuzma will be a really solid fourth option on the wing. Though he shot a disappointing 30.3 percent from 3-point land last season, he was far more efficient when he played next to James and still scored 19.5 points per 36 minutes in that alignment. With Davis in the paint, Kuzma should get some wide open looks next season, especially in the corner, where he’s a career 36.2 percent marksman.
So which free agent will the Lakers sign? If I’m Lakers president Rob Pelinka, I’m seeking a star that can shoot and defend at a high level. There’s no better candidate than, yup, the Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard. The Lakers desperately need some perimeter defense now that Ball was sent to the Big Easy. Leonard is a two-way monster who could shoot the lights out and lock down opposing stars like he did to Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the playoffs.
But it’s not clear that Leonard wants to even play alongside James. After winning a championship while being the unquestioned No. 1 option in a drama-free environment with the Toronto Raptors, joining the Lakers would be a night-and-day experience. Leonard was born in Los Angeles and was California’s Mr. Basketball in high school, but he may prefer playing for the Clippers rather than joining the more Hollywood Lakers.
If not Leonard, LeBron should immediately hit up Kyrie Irving, who becomes the best shooter among the stars in this free agency class now that Thompson will be rehabbing most, if not all, of next season with a torn ACL. Irving’s shot disappeared in the playoffs, but he shot 40.1 percent from deep in the regular season, which was third-highest among 20-point scorers behind Stephen Curry (43.7 percent), Buddy Hield (42.7 percent) and Thompson (40.2).
We saw what an Irving-led team looks like in Boston. We have also seen what Irving as a second or third option looks like in Cleveland. It looks a lot like a "Larry OB," as Leonard would say.
Should the Lakers fail to bring in Leonard or Irving, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker could be fine Plan B’s. Jimmy Buckets is intriguing as a Leonard Light -- a top-shelf defender and crunchtime assassin. But I’d worry about spacing next to James as he made less than a 3-pointer per game last season with the Philadelphia 76ers. In that same vein, Kemba Walker could be an appealing Irving consolation prize, but he’s two years older and more of a liability on defense with his diminutive size approaching his 30s.
Don’t count out the Lakers opting for splitting that max-level money to multiple players. For instance, what if they went out and snagged Malcolm Brogdon and JJ Redick to round out their supporting cast? Not only would they be bringing two of the game’s elite shooters into the fray; it would badly hurt two of their top championship threats in Milwaukee and Philadelphia.
Prying away Brogdon will be tougher considering that he’s a restricted free agent, giving the Bucks the ability to match any offer. By matching offers for Brogdon and retaining free agents Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Nikola Mirotic, the Bucks could be a small-market team paying a luxury tax bill even before Antetokounmpo’s Designated Player Exception, or “supermax,” would kick in during the 2021-22 season.
That is, if Antetokounmpo signs the extension. Don’t think for a second that Antetokounmpo isn’t closely watching how ownership handles this offseason. If they get stingy and let Brogdon or Middleton walk, that might send the wrong signal to Antetokounmpo, who could be a free agent in 2021. Remember what we just saw Davis go through last season? That might be Antetokounmpo in 2019-20, if the Bucks don’t handle this correctly.
The safe bet is that the ownership group in Milwaukee pays up to keep the core, but man, would Brogdon be a perfect fit next to James. He was a card-carrying member of the 50-40-90 club, shooting at least 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent on 3-pointers and 90 percent from the line. As a sharp ball-handler and elite defender, he would be a star version of what Matthew Dellavedova was in Cleveland.
Redick would be an obvious candidate to play the Ray Allen and Kyle Korver role next to James. Redick turns 35 later this month, but he just averaged a career-high 18.1 points per game and takes care of his body as well as any veteran in the league. Though I wouldn’t expect him to leave a great situation in Philadelphia, don’t count out a return to L.A. for Redick, who has remarkably made the playoffs every season of his career but still doesn’t have a championship.
Frank Vogel, in his first season with the Lakers, will have a tough job ahead of him if the Lakers can’t find elite shooters. If they can’t reel in Brogdon or Redick, look for the Lakers to target sharpshooters like Seth Curry, Wayne Ellington or Rudy Gay. Let’s not do the whole load-up-on-bad-shooters thing again, OK Lakers?
By the way, a round of applause for Davis’ agent, Rich Paul. He has certainly taken his lumps in the press for the way he handled the trade demand last season, but he got his wish, or I should say, his client’s wish, by forcing his way to LakerLand. Paul has done well for his star clientele. Davis is now in Los Angeles. John Wall got his supermax. Eric Bledsoe signed a $70 million extension two months before averaging 10.2 points in the Eastern Conference Finals. No agent has a perfect track record, but Paul has pulled out a big win here for his two top clients in James and Davis.
The Pelicans will be fascinating. I’ve always seen Lonzo Ball as a younger Jrue Holiday with the way he plays menacing defense. Ball has better vision and nifty handle, but he’ll need to improve his jump shot and strength if he wants to vault into Holiday’s All-Star status. I also like Hart’s skillset in that rebuild.
Ingram’s blood clots are concerning on some level, but medically, this isn’t a Chris Bosh situation; Ingram’s condition was a structural issue, not a genetic one. Obviously, the Pelicans did their homework and felt it checked out. I’m not as high on him as a prospect as others, but he could thrive next to Williamson. With Holiday, Ball, Hart, Ingram and Williamson as a defensive core, this could be the best defense for years to come. The shooting will be ugly next season, but it will sort itself out with the right pieces. David Griffin, the Pelicans’ head of basketball operations, was brilliant in Cleveland filling out the roster.
It’s a bit of a surprise that Griffin wasn’t able to snag a better player in the deal, but Griffin is basically making a bet that the Lakers will screw this up somehow.
The pick structure is reminiscent of the heist that the Boston Celtics netted from the Brooklyn Nets for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. According to ESPN, the Pelicans will receive the No. 4 pick in 2019 draft, a top-eight protected pick in 2021 (which becomes unprotected in 2022), a 2023 unprotected pick swap, a 2024 unprotected first-round pick and a 2025 unprotected pick swap.
What this boils down to is that the Pelicans have control of the Lakers’ first-rounders through LeBron’s 40th birthday.
Griffin, who sources say wasn’t contacted to possibly replace Magic Johnson as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, likely sees the future draft picks as the gem of this deal. The Lakers could be great next season, but James turns 35 in December and Davis will be a free agent next summer. Davis seems like a lock to re-sign long term in L.A., but a lot can change in a year. In related news, the Raptors just won the championship with Kawhi Leonard.
As for the outside teams looking in, this is a crushing blow to the Boston Celtics, who might lose Irving now that Davis is heading West. The Celtics have long believed that trading for Davis would be the best chance in keeping Irving long term, sources say. But now they’re looking at a revamped 2018 playoff redux with Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown leading the way with Gordon Hayward back in the driver’s seat.
Next time someone tells you the NBA is rigged or too predictable, just end that conversation right then and there. Put the group chat on mute. Turn around and walk away. Hang up the phone. This time last year, the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics were destined to be battling it out for league supremacy for the foreseeable future. A year later, neither Boston nor Golden State look like bonafide contenders, for a variety of reasons.
With the Lakers, there’s surely more drama to be on the way. They may be title favorites now, but there are no guarantees in the NBA. I mean, the Lakers didn’t even make the playoffs last season. And neither did Davis. But this league runs on superstars. A James-Davis partnership alone is powerful enough to give them the inside edge to the NBA Finals. Life comes at you fast in the NBA.