The Los Angeles Lakers are in a unique position right now. They aren’t going to be a playoff team. They’re not going to be a lottery team, either, as the Philadelphia 76ers have their pick, which will likely be towards the end of the lottery.
Without incentive to tank, the Lakers are still playing hard. This is despite the fact that they’re 9.5 games out of the eight seed and are the worst team in the Western Conference to not be mathematically eliminated from the postseason. Still, while they’re not a playoff team, they are an improving one. They have a good shot at getting to 35 wins this year, and the 31 they already have is the most since they last visited the postseason in 2013 when Kobe Bryant blew out his Achilles at the end of the regular season.
In the years since that playoff appearance, the Lakers have tried to sign free agents such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Durant and a few more I’m surely forgetting. It’s hard to keep track.
The Lakers have a legacy that is arguably as great as any in American pro sports over the last 60 years, but that has failed to be enough to lure in any top free agents. This summer, though, the Lakers hope things will be different as they have made it abundantly clear their goal is to bring in the two most coveted free agents when July 1 rolls around. Unlike previous attempts at landing free agents, there is at least some reason to believe both players could choose the Lakers.
Paul George and James will both hit the market as unrestricted free agents, and it’s not exactly a secret that George has some desire to return to his hometown and play for the Lakers. James has, at times, appeared discontent with the direction in Cleveland, has a house in L.A. and there have been rumblings that he’s looking ahead to his post-NBA career in Hollywood for what may be his final long-term contract.
But the Lakers should show caution before making James and George the only plan for success. While there’s good reason to believe both would consider L.A., there’s just as much evidence they’ll either stay with their current franchises or sign elsewhere.
Meanwhile, to land James and George, the Lakers would have to strip their roster down to the bones, which means potentially letting a key piece of their young foundation go in Julius Randle. You can argue that Randle has been the Lakers’ best player this season, and has definitively been their best since he stepped into the starting lineup.
The problem is that the Lakers aren’t just going to be able to glue on LeBron James and Paul George to their starting lineups. They’re going to take several steps backward to take several steps forward, and there’s a genuine debate to have about whether adding those two would be able to make up that stagger and vault L.A. into legitimate contention in the West.
This isn’t to say James and George won’t make L.A. a better team, but the question is whether their addition, combined with everyone leaving who would need to go to free up space, would bring them to the level of the Warriors and Rockets. Let’s look at the roster based on win shares (courtesy of Basketball-Reference), who is staying and who is leaving. For the purposes of this, we will include Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, who were moved in an attempt to clear space to acquire a second star.
All told, there are 20.7 win shares headed out and 11.2 staying with the team. Win shares aren’t an exact science, but the intent is to reveal the relative “share” of “wins” (hence the name) a player has for a team, so the total number should roughly correlate with the team’s actual victories. In the Lakers’ case, it comes pretty close with a smidge under 32 total win shares.
That means, in this scenario, that there are 11.2 wins the Lakers are starting with in addition to whatever improvement they can get out of their younger players, which could be significant. Add on James’ 11.5 win shares and George’s 8.0 and you’re sitting around 40 wins. That’s not a complete roster, of course, but the Lakers would be out of cap space.
So let’s make some projections. Add in an optimistic 1.5 win shares for each of the remaining four players, and you’re sitting around 55 wins. Factor in improvement for the youngsters playing alongside a superstar with a track record of making those around him better in James, and maybe you can get up to 60, best case scenario. Remember that neither George nor James is on a team that is likely to even get to 50 this season, and it’s feasible that even the 60 is too high, but let’s go with that for the sake of this projection.
Is 60 enough to win the Western Conference with the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors both capable of winning 65-plus with better, more well-rounded, returning rosters? James and George would be a fantastic duo, but so are James Harden and Chris Paul, as well as Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, both of whom have significantly better supporting casts.
Beyond that, the ideal situation leaves questions.
Can the Lakers get all that chemistry to work with one point guard in Lonzo Ball and an abundance of combo forwards in Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, James and George? And would there be enough floor-spacing and perimeter shooting to make it work?
There’s also a question of whether the window of opportunity to contend with James and George will match up with when Ball, Ingram and the rest will be ready to contribute to a contender. The unanswerable question in all of this is, of course, how long is James going to remain an elite player?
He’s still pumping in 27.4 points, 9.1 assists and 8.6 rebounds at at 33. His 28.5 player efficiency rating is the highest it’s been since he was 29. But how many more years can he sustain that? Maybe he’ll be the Tom Brady of the NBA and be dominant until he’s 40, but it’s doubtful as we’ve never seen a superstar maintain that kind of pace in the NBA.
Conditioning helps, but it can’t prevent everything. Tendons dry out as you get into your 30s. Lakers fans don’t need to be reminded of that, as it’s what killed Bryant’s career. Big men tend to have a little more lifespan in the NBA, but high-usage wings and guards tend to fade a little earlier. Only eight guards/wings have topped 10 win shares in a season after 34, and only two past 35: Reggie Miller and John Stockton.
The exceptions have been guys who didn’t need their athleticism to be so effective. LeBron’s athleticism at his size is what’s made him one of the greatest ever, and neither Miller nor Stockton saw their bodies take nearly the toll James does on a nightly basis. While I’m not saying it’s impossible that LeBron has another two or three good years left in him — few, if any, superstars have been better about taking care of their body than him — I can say it’s unprecedented.
If the Lakers got both James and George they would be a very good team, but probably not a championship team, and their window would be short — maybe as few as two seasons — before James aged out of elite status. From there, it might be the Kobe conundrum all over again.
The argument you can make is that, whether or not James and George combined with this roster would win a title or even make a Finals, it would certainly pack the people in to see Lakers games and make great business sense.
However, if Magic Johnson’s goal really is a “championship or bust” mentality, it might be wiser for the Lakers to consider keeping Randle and pursuing the slower, more methodical building approach. They won’t be better next year, but they might be better in 2019-20 or 2020-21 when James starts to lose his own personal contest with Father Time.
Randle’s 15.9 points and 7.9 rebounds aren’t otherworldly. In fact, they’re merely solid. He doesn’t have the same notoriety as No. 2 picks Ball and Ingram, but he leads the team in rebounding, win shares, and PER (20.3). His net rating differential is plus-3.4, which is best of anyone on the team with 150 minutes played, according to NBA.com. Ball is better almost across the board when he’s playing with Randle and Ingram is far more efficient.
There’s something there that’s working, but the problem is that there hasn’t been enough for the Lakers’ young big three to feel each other out much. They’ve only started eight games together (and their net rating is plus-0.5 in those games). But there’s a lot of chance to grow, and those chances aren’t pressed by a self-imposed window.
The more Randle shines, the greater the chances are that another team puts a bid on him early. That could put the Lakers in a precarious position if they’re trying to recruit James and George. If they match Randle, then that is going to cost them the cap space they need to make the LeBron and George signings work.
If they don’t match Randle, then that costs them part of their young core. And while not a lot of teams are below the cap, a team could try to sneak him away with a mid-level exception. Other rebuilding teams such as the Chicago Bulls or Phoenix Suns could try and take him away. Or the Brooklyn Nets, who seem to make an offer on a restricted free agent every year, might try and force the Lakers’ hands the way they did with the Washington Wizards and Otto Porter or the Portland Trail Blazers and Allen Crabbe.
What’s more, teams are often reluctant to sign restricted free agents because they know the contract will be matched and they will be left hanging dry with the money committed until the other team does match. That might not be the case here. Teams know the position the Lakers are in, and James’ penchant for waiting before announcing his free agent decision might make teams feel it’s worth the risk to make an early offer on Randle.
Without James committing, George could just as soon decide he’d rather stick with Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. The Lakers then would have neither the bird in their hand nor the two in the bush and would go to bed hungry.