Kawhi Leonard is apparently fed up with the San Antonio Spurs and would prefer to be in Los Angeles. While that’s great news for fans of basketball in Southern California, we should all pump the breaks here. While everyone is dreaming up scenarios that would put Leonard back in his home region there is one truth everyone should accept: it would be moronic for the Los Angeles Lakers to break up their young core to land Kawhi.
Leonard is undoubtedly a great player. He’s a perennial contender for Defensive Player of the Year, is efficient offensively and is still just 26 years old. That said, the price to land him via trade would be steep. Gregg Popovich won’t deal with the Lakers on an even playing field, he’ll need it tilted significantly in his direction to make something happen.
In all likelihood, the Spurs would ask for some group of the Lakers’ four young budding stars: Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart. Frankly, the Lakers would be far better off hanging on to all four, then pursuing Leonard in free agency next summer. Adding him to that group while not surrendering anything is the far smarter plan.
Now, before you jump down my throat, I’m obviously not saying any of those guys is better than Leonard. What I am saying is it would be better to take the risk of having all of those guys and Leonard, than getting him with a depleted bunch.
Even if Leonard was willing to agree to a contract extension as part of a trade, I wouldn’t do it. First off, he’d be giving up a significant chunk of cash by agreeing to an extension now anyway, so it’s far more likely he opts for free agency next summer. Second, we don’t know how he’s healing from an injury that limited him to just nine games this season and has bothered him for two years. For all we know, he could be damaged goods and never reach his previous peak.
As for the young Lakers players, they all showed flashes of being excellent in 2017-18.
Ingram is just 20 and averaged 16.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists, but showed the ability to take over games at times. He looks like a future All-Star.
Kuzma is 22 and was the steal of the 2017 NBA Draft. Taken with the 27th pick, he wound up being an offensive weapon. He averaged 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 36.6 percent from 3-point range. He’s only going to get better.
Hart, the old man of the bunch at 23, was a revelation as well. The 30th pick in the draft, he became a key part of the team down the stretch. In the final month of the season he averaged 17.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 34.9 minutes per game. He also hit 41.5 percent of his 3-point attempts and added 1.1 steals per contest. He’s the perfect steady presence this young group needs.
Then there’s Ball, the uber-hyped 20-year-old point guard who struggled with his shot, minor injuries and his father’s mouth as a rookie. Despite that, when he was on the floor the Lakers were a far better, more efficient team. Once he finally got rolling in the month of December, Ball averaged 12.2 points, 6.7 rebounds and 6.8 assists while hitting 37.7 percent for 3-point range. He was banged up the rest of the season but showed he can be a force in the NBA once he matures.
Look, Leonard is great, but the Lakers have the makings of a phenomenal core. Other than the Philadelphia 76ers, no one has a group of better young group. Oh, and they’re cheap and under team control for years. Why give that up for a guy hitting free agency next summer? The Lakers tried that once and got burned by Dwight Howard.
If the Lakers want Leonard that badly, they should wait for him. Even if they pull of some crazy magic and land Kawhi, LeBron James and Paul George they still wouldn’t be favored over the Golden State Warriors in the West. To get that trio under the salary cap the Lakers would have to essentially scrub their roster clean, then add a bunch of older players on veteran’s minimum contracts. That would be a wildly imbalanced roster that would run into the same problems the Cleveland Cavaliers did this season.
One additional thing to consider is the system implemented by Lakers head coach Luke Walton. He’s following the Warriors model of team basketball, centered around chemistry and having multiple weapons who can spread the floor and attack from all angles. Once the Lakers got comfortable last season they flourished by sharing the basketball. They don’t do ISO ball every time down the floor or rely on one player to take over. Everyone on the floor has to be dangerous for the system to find success. It absolutely would not work with a “super team” roster.
Under Walton’s guidance, the Lakers have improved by nine wins in each of the last two seasons — and that’s with Ingram and Ball missing chunks of time late in the year. On that trajectory they still would wind up being 44-38 next season, but given the growth of the young guys already on the roster it’s a safe bet they will be even better than that if everyone stays healthy.
The best option for the Lakers would be to add one star to the group they’ve already assembled and continue to build that way. They’re not beating the Warriors or the Houston Rockets next season anyway no matter who they add. They might as well keep building, adding assets and let these young kids grow.
If they play it right the Lakers could build the next dynasty like the Warriors have but trading for Leonard would screw up what they’ve already built.