As the Kawhi Leonard saga hangs around in the background of LeBron James' latest free-agent decision, I'm hearing a lot of: "Why would the Lakers trade for Leonard when they can just sign him next summer as a free agent?"
It's a fair question, and a salient point. Yes, the Lakers can wait to sign Leonard as a free agent, and in doing so hang onto their most coveted young assets -- namely Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma. But here's the catch in the scenario: They would, in all likelihood, only be able to sign one max player this summer so as to have enough money left next summer to add Kawhi beneath the cap.
It's either LeBron James or Paul George. But not both.
Perhaps this would be preferable to the Lakers, to eventually field a two-star team that can compete for a title, if only on the fringes, without compromising the core of their long-term future. But there sure is a lot of three-star superteam dreaming going on right now, grandiose visions of putting Leonard alongside LeBron and George and making a run at the mighty Warriors, and for that to happen, whether it's this summer or next, the Lakers are going to have to part with some of those young dudes.
Of course, this would all be moot should the Spurs reject such an offer. They've said publicly they , but clearly you can understand the motivation in posturing at this particular point in the process. If the Spurs just put it out there that they'll be happy to send Leonard to Los Angeles, LeBron and George are likely going to follow suit very quickly. At least make LeBron and George make their decisions without knowing Leonard's status.
That said, if the Lakers, or any other Western Conference team for that matter, end up making the Spurs what turns out to be the best offer on the table, they're going to take it. They might be stubborn, but they're not silly. They know their leverage is leaking by the day. They understand that no team other than the Lakers is likely to offer a premium package without a wink-wink commitment from Kawhi that he'll re-sign long-term, which he is unlikely to do given his known desire to end up in Los Angeles. They know that eventually losing him for nothing would be the ultimate catastrophe.
So they hang tight and hope that a team like the Philadelphia 76ers gets jumpy at the idea of competing right away and offers, perhaps, a package centered on Markelle Fultz and maybe this year's first-round pick, Zhaire Smith, in exchange for Leonard. If they do that, fine, send him to Philly. Put Fultz in the hands of one of the most capable and accomplished shooting coaches in the world in Chip Engelland and hope he finds the form that made him the near-consensus No. 1 overall pick barely a year ago, which would set up your post-Kawhi future on its own. Maybe the Celtics get antsy and offer Jaylen Brown. Maybe some team comes out of the woodwork like the Thunder did last year for George.
But again, assuming this doesn't happen, and no one is willing to give up real assets for a potential one-year rental, the Spurs would be fools to turn down a solid Lakers offer. In the end, you get what you can get from whatever team is willing to give it. Danny Ainge set the Celtics up for a decade of title contention by trading stars, albeit aging ones, to a conference rival in the Brooklyn Nets, who at the time were trying to piece together a super team with Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez. Did Ainge care that he was potentially paving the way for a conference foe to create a championship contender? Not for a second. And he shouldn't have.
Which brings us back to: Will the Lakers make an aggressive offer? It's a fascinating question as part of what stands to be a fascinating summer for the Lakers, who also have to make a decision on Julius Randle, who could very well get a big offer from another team early in this free agency window that officially opens at midnight on July 1.
As a restricted free agent, the Lakers can match any offer Randle receives, but doing so would restrict their ability to acquire two max players, and they could very well have to make a decision on Randle before they know of George's and/or LeBron's decision. The whole thing is tricky, but nothing great is supposed to be easy, and the Lakers, on paper, have the chance to become a great team in the next few weeks.
We'll see if they, and the Spurs, are truly willing to play ball.