LOS ANGELES — You can close your eyes and let your imagination run wild, LeBron James dribbling the ball at Staples Center, pushing toward the basket. The defenders collapse around maybe the strongest ball handler the game has seen. And instead of forcing a shot, he just lobs the ball near the rim for a long-armed, spring-legged, one-eyebrowed star for an easy two points.
Anthony Davis will become a Los Angeles Laker, validating the Las Vegas bookmakers that had the team as the favorite to win the 2020 NBA championship in the afterglow of the Toronto Raptors’ dethroning of the Golden State Warriors this past week. But Davis isn’t reason alone to think the Lakers can get to the top of a reshuffled Western Conference.
Getting Davis is a huge move for the Lakers as they try to become credible contenders after missing the playoffs in James’ first season with the team. It’s not the only move — it’s the first.
By getting Davis, the Lakers did the only thing they could this summer to put them in the conversation for a meaningful free agency signing — the kind of addition that could matter in late May and early June next year, and not just the kind that would help them be a tougher out early in the playoffs.
Imagine it again, James pushing the ball in the paint, the defense putting all its focus on him and the target closest to the basket, Davis. Now imagine a third option, another All-Star player, at the three-point line, ready and waiting to receive the ball before knocking down a shot.
It’s a real possibility. That, as much as the Davis acquisition, is why it’s reasonable to think the Lakers can win their 17th NBA title, which would be their first in a decade.
Getting Davis gives you a chance, but that was the easiest part of the equation. Filling in around him? That’ll be the difference between another banner or not.
The addition of a third “max” star relies on whether the Lakers created enough salary-cap space to sign one. That depends on when the trade with Davis is actually consummated and not just agreed upon.
Kyrie Irving probably should be the Lakers’ top choice. He reportedly wanted to pair with Davis — a desire that fueled hope in Boston, New York and Brooklyn. He’s already succeeded alongside James in Cleveland and is a prolific shooter — he made more than 45% of his catch-and-shoot three-pointers.
Irving, though, already split with James once, and as he likely leaves Boston, he’ll take with him plenty of blame for the dysfunction inside the Celtics’ locker room.
A more stable choice with the Lakers’ cap space, should they want to use most of it on one player, would be Kemba Walker. He is also an All-Star, and he’d come with far less baggage. But Walker is not the shooter and playmaker Irving is, and playing with stars like James and Davis in Los Angeles would be a huge adjustment for someone used to carrying the scoring load in Charlotte.
Jimmy Butler, another max-level player who would eat up all the cap room, proved his value in the postseason with Philadelphia, even if he’s not a traditional shooter that you’d want to add. He’s proven he can make winning plays on a team with plenty of other scorers and ball handlers, and that’s a critical skill in a next-tier star when assembling a “Big Three.” Philadelphia knows all of this and can offer more money and years in free agency than the Lakers. Like Irving, Butler comes with baggage after bad exits from Chicago and Minnesota.
If the Lakers don’t view Kyle Kuzma as the ideal starter next to James and Davis, a guy like Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton would help them on both sides of the ball, particularly behind the three-point line. Could they welcome back D’Angelo Russell if Irving ends up in Brooklyn?
Those could be options. The Lakers, though, might have to look at others if the trade is so structured that they end up without the space for another max contract..
The Lakers could veer from another superstar hunt — and if there was ever a time to argue for that, it would be on the heels of the Raptors beating a “super team” with a star and a team of role players — and they could spread their money around to a couple of free agents who best fit.
A player like J.J. Redick, who had some interest in signing with the Lakers last summer before the team elected to spend money on players like Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Michael Beasley, would be an incredible fit — the kind of three-point sniper the Lakers needed last season. Brook Lopez, whom the Lakers let walk last year, would be a perfect fit, although he’d be coming back a lot more expensive.
Bojan Bogdanovic is coming off a career year in Indiana during which he scored more than 18 points per game while shooting better than 40% from three-point range for the second consecutive season. Speaking of the champion Raptors, Danny Green is almost a perfect fifth starter in any lineup looking for shooting and defense.
Patrick Beverley would help the Lakers’ defense while giving them a guard comfortable playing off the ball. So would Ricky Rubio, though he hasn’t shown that he’s been able to force defenses to stretch.
Getting Davis wasn’t the big challenge — his representation did everything in its power to get him to the Lakers. The Lakers had to give up a lot, but Davis is the star.
The challenge for general manager Rob Pelinka and the rest of the front office will be what comes next. That’s where the Lakers can cement themselves as the favorite in 2020.