One would need unhealthy doses of both Magic Johnson’s beaming confidence and LaVar Ball’s unflappable optimism to claim with a straight face that the Los Angeles Lakers got everything they wanted this offseason.
Of course, LeBron James was the biggest piece of the Lakers’ plan for the immediate future, and the franchise was quick to get him under contract soon after free agency opened.
But it was no industry secret that the Lakers’ summer goals involved teaming LeBron with at least one more All-Star, be it Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins in free agency, or Kawhi Leonard or Damian Lillard in a trade. Some dream scenarios had the Lakers bringing in two stars to flank LeBron and creating an instant contender.
So far, however, the Lakers have failed to land any of those big-name targets. George decided to re-sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Cousins joined the Golden State Warriors. Leonard was traded to the Toronto Raptors, and the Lillard trade talks didn’t materialize into a deal.
Barring a surprise move, the Lakers will begin the 2018-19 season similar to how the Cleveland Cavaliers ended the 2017-18 season — with a roster that features LeBron leading a collection of youngsters and veteran role players.
No one outside of the Lakers’ front office knows exactly what the plan is moving forward, but the end-goal is obviously to contend for NBA titles. Which means competing with the Warriors. Which means having the offensive firepower to keep up with the Warriors. This means the Lakers may have to reach back into the archives and create a team that is reminiscent of their “Showtime” glory days from the 1980s.
And who better to build that team than Magic Johnson?
Whether it’s at the 2019 trade deadline or next summer’s free-agency period, there are some available players that can truly bring the “Showtime” element back to L.A.
5. Ricky Rubio
Word on the street is that LeBron wants to move away from playing de facto point guard, and it looks like the Lakers are trying to facilitate that by employing true playmakers like Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo.
As brilliant as he is at orchestrating an offense, it’s not a coincidence that Rondo has played on five teams in the past four seasons. He’s clashed with enough coaches and teammates that it seems no one is willing to commit more than one season to him despite his talent and his knack for stepping his game up in the playoffs.
If things go according to trend, Rondo won’t be with the Lakers after next season.
At the same time, Rubio will be a free agent after next season. And as I’ve written before, Lonzo Ball would be in pretty good shape if he were to put together a career using the Rubio and Rondo blueprint. (Jason Kidd would be the ceiling in that scenario.) So if the Lakers lose Rondo, bringing in Rubio would be the next best fit for that style of point guard.
Rubio is an incredible passer (7.9 assists per game in his career), a defensive playmaker (2.0 steals per game) and a good rebounder for his position (seven games last season of 10-plus rebounds). He and Ball, like Rondo and Ball, have similar skill sets, all the way down to their suspect jump shots.
Rubio currently has a nice gig in Utah as the starting point guard on a playoff team. But if he wants to be on a championship contender sooner than later, he might be willing to accept a lesser role in L.A.
4. DeAndre Jordan
During his last season in Cleveland, LeBron reportedly wanted the Cavaliers to make a trade with the Los Angeles Clippers for Jordan. It wasn’t difficult to see why.
Jordan is one of the more explosive athletes at his position in the league. He’s a three-time All-NBA pick, one-time All-Star, two-time All-Defensive pick and a two-time league leader in rebounds.
His offensive game doesn’t go far beyond catching lobs, getting putbacks and dunking the ball, but at least he knows what he can and can’t do and stays within his limitations. Jordan has led the league in field goal percentage five times — last season was the first time he hadn’t been No. 1 in that category since 2012 — and he is the NBA’s career leader (67.3 percent) in field goal shooting.
Surrounded by great passers like LeBron and Lonzo (and Rubio?), Jordan would thrive like he did when he played with Chris Paul in L.A.
Jordan left the Clippers this summer to sign a one-year deal with the Dallas Mavericks. He’ll be a free agent next summer. After coming up short in the playoffs so often in L.A., and being on a likely lottery team next season in Dallas, he may be another player interested in winning a title with the new-look Lakers.
3. Klay Thompson
One player who certainly has his share of championship rings but may have other priorities next summer that work in the Lakers’ favor is Klay Thompson.
The four-time All-Star shooting guard has won three NBA titles with the Warriors, and will be favored to add a fourth ring in 2019. After that, he’ll become a free agent.
Because he has previously been the No. 2 and now the No. 3 option with the Warriors, and perhaps because he’s been labeled by many as a shooting specialist rather than an all-around star, Thompson hasn’t been making superstar-level money. He’s not broke by any stretch — his salary is $18.9 million next season — but he hasn’t yet cracked that $20 million mark that often represents real superstardom in the league.
Klay is also an L.A. native whose father, Mychal Thompson, won championships with the Lakers in the 1980s. There may be a part of Klay that wants to wear the purple and gold for the hometown squad.
Klay won’t rise beyond being the No. 2 option in L.A. as long as LeBron is around, but he could get out of the No. 3 spot he’s currently in behind Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, if that means anything to him. Like De Andre Jordan, Thompson would benefit a lot from having passers like LeBron and Lonzo getting him the ball, and he could continue winning championships.
2. Jimmy Butler
While his game isn’t flashy like the style that the name “Showtime” brings to mind, Butler is simply a great all-around player who excels on both ends of the court that would make the Lakers a real title contender if he joined the team.
The 6-foot-7 wing achieved the NBA triumvirate of individual honors last season: He was named to the All-NBA, All-Star and All-Defensive teams for the Minnesota Timberwolves. But there have been reports that Butler isn’t happy in his current location, talk that only gained traction after he recently turned down a $100 million contract extension offer.
Butler has a player option that allows him to become a free agent in 2019. If he chooses that route, the Lakers should be among the teams pursuing him. Butler was a tough rival for LeBron when they were both in the Eastern Conference, so the two know each other’s games well.
Viewed as more grit than glamour on the court, Butler is nonetheless a versatile weapon (22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 2.0 steals per game last season) who is one of the game’s elite talents.
1. Kawhi Leonard
After LeBron, the Lakers’ top target this summer was Leonard. Of course, the hard part would be prying the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and 2014 NBA Finals MVP away from the San Antonio Spurs via trade, when it was widely reported that the Spurs really preferred not to deal with the Lakers.
Still, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Leonard would be headed to L.A. Not only had he burned his bridges in San Antonio and made it clear he didn’t want to be there anymore, but he’d also reportedly made it clear that he planned to sign with the Lakers as a free agent in 2019. That took away the incentive for a lot of teams to pursue a trade, if Leonard would be a one-year rental at best.
The Lakers still failed to get their man. The Spurs traded Leonard to the Toronto Raptors.
But that may turn out to be a good thing for the Lakers. In order to get Leonard this summer, L.A. would’ve had to trade some valuable pieces from their young core. To get Leonard next summer, L.A. just needs some room under the salary cap, which they should have.
Injuries (and a rumored disinterest in playing when he was healthy) caused Leonard to miss all but nine games last season. But when he’s at the top of his game, Leonard is one of the best players in the league. He finished in the top-3 of MVP voting in 2016 and 2017. In his last full season, he averaged 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game.
Like Butler, Leonard is not a flashy player. He’s just highly skilled, productive and tough. Which is what “Showtime” is really all about in the first place: Winning games and hanging banners. Leonard can help the Lakers get back to where they used to be.