Depending on which sports book you are looking at, you might see the Los Angeles Lakers listed with the best betting odds to win the 2020 NBA title. Yes, the franchise that has had the summer from Hell, from a general manager that lies about Heath Ledger and Kobe Bryant rendezvous, to a shadow owner who was revealed to be Linda Rambis, to a former executive who can’t stop burying the Lakers and sending out some room-temperature tweets, not to mention the franchise just missed the playoffs again to continue their downward spiral to Knicks West. If you have been paying attention at all over the past few months, the idea that the Lakers could win the title next season, much less even contend for the title, is unbelievable.
But it’s the Lakers.
Nothing out of this organization should surprise us anymore. Nothing. So why are we all struggling to wrap our heads around the Lakers stumbling back into title contention next season? Would that not be on-brand for this franchise at this point to blow our minds once more, just in a positive manner this time? If Kobe Bryant were to be named Assistant General Manager under Rob Pelinka this summer, we’d all understand. If Jeannie Buss were to make Jason Kidd the highest paid assistant coach in the NBA, we’d all understand. (Wait, what, that already happened? Damn.) If Phil Jackson was given Magic Johnson’s role after Page Six reports Buss and Phil are back together, we’d all understand. This is the Lakers. Or Klutch’s NBA team. It just depends on who you ask, right?
The Toronto Raptors may have just won the NBA title, but there is a very real chance that they’re a memorable, fun one-and-done story. If Kawhi Leonard departs, one would think they’ll tear it all down. That removes the defending champs from the equation, but what of the runner-ups? Well, they’re all injured and the Golden State Warriors will in all likelihood follow LeBron’s seemingly enjoyable gap year -- err, vacation? -- in Los Angeles last year with their own metaphorical semester abroad. Then there are the Milwaukee Bucks, who will have to overpay at least one role player this summer; then there are the Philadelphia 76ers, who will try to fill out their bench while also keeping together an increasingly expensive starting five; then there are the Boston Celtics, who may still trade for Anthony Davis even if Rich Paul and Davis open their introductory press conference by saying he is most definitely still outta’ here after next season.
Part of the reason it is so wide-open is basically everybody is a free agent, and that includes the Lakers, who signed, roughly, 43 guys to one-year deals last summer to ensure they were major players in free agency this summer. The Clippers, that other LA team, operated roughly the same way, just with a better owner, a better front office, a better coach, and a better supporting cast for a superstar to join. If the New York Knicks had landed the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, it wouldn’t be all that crazy to assume they’d be betting favorites to win the title next season. However, Kevin Durant’s injury complicates this hypothesis, as you’d need a healthy Durant, Zion Williamson and Kyrie Irving to make this Instant Contender soup. In an absolute stunner, though, shit went south for the Knicks and they’re on the outside looking in. (Who is going to be their Amare Stoudemire signing this summer? My money is on Tobias Harris. Yeesh.)
It seems like everything has to start with Davis for Los Angeles. If Pelinka pulls it off, even if it means giving up all the damn assets the Lakers have left, they’re immediately the most appetizing spot for both role players and one final star to hitch his wagon to. Davis and LeBron is a scary proposition, potentially spacing issues aside, but more than that, with LeBron and Davis under secured, you have two top-10 players in basketball and that is enough to warrant contendership-status. Most teams spend years, shoutout to Daryl Morey, just to nab one, and the Lakers would immediately have two.
Everything gets easier after the Davis domino falls. Like last summer, the Lakers have to win in free agency. Unlike last summer, the Lakers don’t need to attract the best player on the planet. No, they just need to attract one of the 20-best talents on the planet in Butler. The former Marquette wing will have his suitors, and has she showed in the playoffs this season, having a two-way wing like Butler is a nice thing to have. It helps that LeBron has reportedly already reached out to Butler about joining the Lakers. However, if you’re Butler, you don’t entertain leaving the Sixers, assuming they offer him the max, without the Davis deal already having gone down. You need to know you won’t be tasked with finding a way to score enough points to survive with LeBron, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball on the floor. Butler is at a stage in his career, both from age and injuries, where surrounding him with a mixture of win-now guys and might-be-good-one-day guys is no longer on the menu. This has to be a group like the 2019 Warriors -- a plethora of star veterans and replaceable bench guys.
But if the Lakers trade for Davis and sign Butler, what does their backcourt look like? Paying LeBron $35-plus million, along with trading for Davis and signing Butler, that doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room to put together a backcourt that jumps off the page. So what if post-Davis, the Lakers are faced with paying a star wing or a star guard to flank LeBron and Davis? The good news is that LeBron has won championships in both scenarios both in Miami and Cleveland. So if you’re LA, though, who makes more sense to pay for four years -- Butler or Kyrie Irving or Kemba Walker, or, wait for it, D’Angelo Russell? Do you go the Milwaukee route with Giannis and just add two role player guards like Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon to flank your star wings in LeBron and Butler like Giannis and Middleton? Or do you go the 2015 Cleveland route and just add one superstar guard in Kemba or Kyrie or Russell and bring in J.R. Smith to flank him for a year? If this is the choice the Lakers are faced with, you can understand why Vegas likes them next year -- both avenues could lead to a title, health permitting.
But how tasty would a D’Lo return in Los Angeles be, especially after the way Magic left the organization. The guy Magic clearly wasn’t a fan of, coming back, and becoming LeBron’s New Kyrie next to the King and Davis. As long as Nick Young isn’t involved, this would be incredible. (Wait, actually, if Young was involved, it would still be incredible.) LeBron has already told the All-Star he’s proud of his development in Brooklyn and he just seems like the perfect personality and playmaker to assist LeBron late in games, especially in the playoffs. Sure, the defensive upside isn’t comparable to a Butler/LeBron/Davis trio, but, at the very least, you’ll know this trio would have the shooting to survive.
Kawhi still exists, though. The Claw may very well be the best basketball player on the planet, and you’d think if he stays in Toronto or sets sail to the Clippers, that team should be the favorite. But winning by yourself without another superstar(s) to shoulder the burden is hard, and Kawhi showed signs of being absolutely gassed and hobbled in the Finals. Maybe it’s not crazy to assume Kawhi’s body can’t handle back-to-back deep playoff runs on a team devoid of other superstar talent. If Kyrie goes to Brooklyn, Butler stays in Philly or goes to the Lakers, who else is there for Kawhi to partner with. This summer, LeBron and the Lakers will be speed dating, while the Kawhi and his team may parsing through the Yellow Pages trying to find Tobias Harris’ phone number.
Poor Kevin Love, too. The guy had an injury-riddled season in Cleveland, signed a huge contract, and he can’t rejoin his former co-star in LA because of the Lakers’ bonker cap sheet, or lack thereof. When it was revealed that Kyrie and Love and LeBron reconnected midseason, it was maybe my favorite off-the-court moment in the NBA this season. I really enjoyed that trio in Cleveland, and it really sucked to see it end the way it did. Outside of maybe LeBron, it looks as though everyone involved would have been better off sticking together a while longer. Seeing that trio try to capture magic once again, but this time in Laker Land would have just been really cool and something we rarely see in sport -- a dynasty do-over. Instead, we find Love in a hopeless place. Somebody save everyone’s favorite Banana Republic model, please?
Rob Pelinka, err, Klutch Sports (?), err, Linda Rambis, pulling this off would be something else. Like the Knicks with Steve Mills and James Dolan, it’s fair to remain dubious about their chances of landing one superstar, much less two in the same offseason. This stuff changes fast, just look at Brooklyn swooping in with a Crabbe Attack and clearing enough room to sign to max slots. The Knicks really believed they were getting Durant and Kyrie this summer to pair with a lottery pick, and it looks like Mills and Friends will end up with Harris and R.J. Barrett. Holy yikes, Batman. Now, the Lakers believe they’re going to finally get Davis and add one more star from LeBron’s contact list. Things change. Fast.
Ultimately, though, this is good news for people who like seeing the best player in the world play on good basketball teams. Watching LeBron try and make it work with the young guns in Los Angeles this season was rough. At 33-years-old, LeBron should be playing with younger stars who can shoulder more of the burden so he can turn it on in the playoffs a few more times. LeBron just missing the playoffs, injuries aside, just shouldn’t happen yet. Basketball fans should want to see LeBron play on one last contender before Father Time breaks through that cryogenic chamber he maintains in every offseason. I want Davis in LA. I want Russell in LA. I want the Lakers to be good. Mostly, I want to hear one day about the time Pelinka got LeBron James a meeting with Bart Starr this fall to pick the brain of an original champion.