When Kawhi Leonard Los Angeles Clippers, he became the latest in what is an ever-growing line of superstars to shun playing alongside LeBron James, who isn't looking like the lure the Lakers expected him to be.by agreeing to sign with the
There are layers to this, and perhaps Leonard's decision to spurn a Lakers super-team says more about him than it does them, but there's a bottom line here: If Leonard wanted to play with LeBron, he could have. If Kyrie Irving wanted to reunite with LeBron, he could have. if Paul George wanted to play with LeBron, he could have. George is perhaps the most damning case against LeBron's appeal.
When George demanded out of Indiana, he made it absolutely clear he wanted to end up with the Lakers. That was pre-LeBron. He wound up in Oklahoma City instead, the Lakers signed LeBron, and when George had his chance to join him as a free agent last summer, he didn't even give the Lakers a meeting. And it's not like George just suddenly decided against Los Angeles in general. When Kawhi approached him about joining up with the Clippers, he reportedly went straight to the Thunder and asked out.
Here's his reaction to the deal:
That is a Southern California kid who is thrilled to be going back to his home region. That is a star player who is thrilled to join up with an even-better star player. The Lakers had this very same sales pitch to make to George, and he wasn't even interested enough to listen to it.
Again, there are layers to this, and timing matters. Last summer, George was fresh off a dispiriting first-round loss with the Thunder, to whom he felt indebted for having taken a chance on trading for him in the first place. He had hit it off with Russell Westbrook and felt OKC had unfinished business. Bailing at that point felt different than bailing now, after another disappointing first-round loss and perhaps a bit clearer vision of what playing next to Westbrook for the next two years, at least, looked like.
Still, when Kawhi called, George jumped. When LeBron and the Lakers called, for all intents and purposes, he didn't even pick up. Fact is, Leonard was reportedly set on the Lakers when he forced his way out of San Antonio. It was when LeBron came that his tune changed. When Butler asked out of Minnesota, the Lakers weren't on his list of preferred destinations. When the Lakers first made the trade for Anthony Davis, it was Kemba Walker who was reportedly a main target to become their third star.
Kemba committed to the Celtics the second he could.
In the end, the only way the Lakers have been able to put a true star player alongside LeBron is to trade just about everything but the name on their jerseys. It got them Anthony Davis, who by all indications is thrilled in his own right to be playing with LeBron and the Lakers, but there's even a Klutch qualifier to that. Being represented by LeBron's agency, and LeBron's own agent, isn't exactly insignificant in this deal.
In other words, It wasn't a clear cut "I want to play next to LeBron" situation for Davis. He wanted out of New Orleans. He wanted to go to L.A. He shares a powerful and very aggressive agent with LeBron. The pairing was about basketball, yes. But there's a lot of business involved, too. Davis didn't outright choose the Lakers and LeBron against a field of other attractive suitors. The Lakers were one of the only teams with a package attractive enough for the Pelicans to accept. It all just worked in a pinch situation. Had Davis gotten to free agency next summer, it perhaps would've been a different story. Again, George and Kawhi tried to get traded to the Lakers then passed when they had the chance to go as free agents.
Playing next to LeBron used to be seen for its advantages. Now, at least with star players who have unlimited options, it appears to be more about the disadvantages. Playing on a LeBron team is a media circus, for one. Kevin Durant famously called the environment around a LeBron team "toxic" -- and with the way things went last year for the Lakers, can you really blame him?
From a pure basketball standpoint, playing next to LeBron means, to a large degree, playing on his terms. When you win, you'll be seen as a sellout star who hitched his fortunes to the wagon of one of the greatest players of all time. If you lose, it'll be your fault. The "LeBron's teammates aren't good enough" card is ready to be pulled at a moment's notice.
All this has added up to a paradigm shift against not just super-teams, but LeBron-led super-teams. Those are in a different category. Playing with a second star is a virtual championship requirement these days (unless you're Kawhi), but the egregious, indulgent act of completely stacking the deck with as many superstars as possible seems a card only LeBron wants to play these days. These other guys are ready to prove themselves in an actual competitive way. They don't want to join the Lakers; they want to beat them.
In this case, the Clippers may have done just that. They're the, two spots in front of the Lakers. But this isn't just about next season for the Lakers, or even the season after that. They have yet to secure any kind of post-LeBron plan. Sure, he and Davis can at least put them in the conversation for a few years, but after that, they've traded all their young talent and draft picks and once again pinned their hopes to future superstar free agents picking them from a crowded pack of suitors.
You can already see the Lakers convincing themselves they can get Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021. But right now, they are positioned to be like every other LeBron team that falls off the map once he leaves after they traded everything in sight to maximize his stay. So right now, that's what this is about for the Lakers. Maximize these next two years. Win a title. Which won't be easy with the role players they lost out on as they waited for Kawhi. Beyond Davis and LeBron, they are super thin, even with the signings of Danny Green and DeMarcus Cousins.
If they somehow get a title, great. It was worth it to strike out on the sustainable super-team. But if they don't, as of right now, they're looking at a future that includes Anthony Davis with nobody alongside him and not a ton of means to change that beyond the "Lakers" name that is supposed to be the ultimate lure. Turns out, things aren't always as shiny as they appear.