NBA

The Lakers now have options ahead of free agency

By Adrian Dy on Jun 29, 2019 09:43 AM

FILE - CHARLOTTE, NC - FEBRUARY 16: LeBron James #23 and Anthony Davis #23 of Team LeBron shake hands in the locker room before the 2019 NBA All-Star Practice and Media Availability on February 16, 2019 at Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

The LA Lakers are back in business.

Putting aside whether or not they planned this all along, or the alleged bias (bI@S!) of the people breaking the news, the Lakers have done what they have set out to do: generate enough cap space for a third max deal. Thanks to the Washington Wizards, who picked up the trio of Mo Wagner, Issac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones, and with the help of Anthony Davis waiving his trade kicker, the purple-and-gold now have about $32 million freed up, entering free agency.

Suddenly, there is now a wealth of options for this squad. They can pursue a third superstar and form a superteam, think LeBron's Miami Heat, or Cleveland Cavaliers teams, or they could split up that money and surround James and Anthony Davis with a potent supporting cast, similar to what the newly-crowned Toronto Raptors for Kawhi Leonard.

Just don't be mistaken - deciding between the two paths is not an easy decision to make.

In the past, it would have been. Ever since Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen banded together in Boston, the idea of a terrific trio has gripped the Association. Then the Golden State Warriors took it even further in recent years, adding Kevin Durant to a core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, followed by mixing in some Boogie Cousins.

But that's where things get complicated. On paper, the Warriors' super-charged quintet was supposed to run roughshod over the NBA this season. Instead, injuries rocked their line-up, and they wound up losing to the extremely balanced Raptors, who got key contributions up and down their roster en route to their first-ever title.

So, which route should the Lakers take - go for a superstar, or bolster the role player ranks? Here are the pros and cons of both approaches:

Get a superstar

For ABS-CBN Sports' Martin Javier, a Lakers fan, fortune favors the bold. "You don't win championships by making safe decisions," he said. "So I say go ahead and sign the third superstar."

Should the Lakers go down this road, they'll have to fill out their roster with players they'll acquire via exceptions and minimum contracts, a situation familiar to James. As Javier points out, "LeBron's played with less talent and still took them to the Finals. They just need to surround him with shooters."

The appeal of having three stars is obvious: teams can usually deal with one game-changer, and elite squads can possibly stop two. But three is usually the magic number, and James-led teams have been prime examples of that.

There is also a more subtle reason to add a third star: it takes away one from another team, damaging their chances at a title, while bolstering the Lakers'.

Let's say the Lakers' dream scenario works out and they land Kawhi Leonard. All of a sudden, the Raptors' chances at repeating take a drastic blow, while city rivals the Clippers stay just a scrappy team. By the same token, if they land Kyrie Irving, all of a sudden, New York and Brooklyn don't look so intimidating. And let's not even get into the possibility, however remote, of them snagging Klay Thompson from the Golden State Warriors.

But while the idea and motivation behind forming a trio is easy, the actual hard work rarely isn't. Just ask Chris Bosh or Kevin Love, how it feels to get relegated to third banana (no pun intended) status. It's possible that in today's load management world however, that some sort of a compromise can be reached. With three stars, head coach Frank Vogel could opt to cycle one out and let the other two go to town during tough stretches of the schedule. While you obviously can't do that come the postseason, it at least will give guys the chance to star on certain nights, while ensuring fresh legs when it really matters.

If there's more fitting in than fitting out, the Lakers could quickly catapult back to the top of the standings.

Bolster the supporting cast

1 > 5...right?

The Toronto Raptors had just one superstar in Kawhi Leonard (though to be fair, they had a multiple-time All-Star in Kyle Lowry, eventual Most Improved Player winner Pascal Siakam, and a former DPoY in Marc Gasol). The Golden State Warriors had five current and former All-Stars. But when injuries hit the then-defending champs, their bench just couldn't contribute enough to make up for the guys in the hospital. In contrast, players like Danny Green, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet, in addition to the other previously mentioned guys, balled out.

There's plenty of reasons why the Lakers might want to emulate the Raptors model, but it starts at the top: Anthony Davis has never been the healthiest of players, while LeBron James finally looked mortal this year, missing a long stretch due to a groin injury that ultimately led to the Lakers falling out of the postseason picture.

Breaking up that $32 million into several, smaller contracts may not be as flashy, but it might be the more prudent idea, as expressed by several other Lakers fans.

ABS-CBN News sports writer Camille Naredo initially was gleeful at the idea of stealing away Kawhi Leonard or Kemba Walker from rivals like the Clippers and the Celtics, but admitted, "Once I get past my own pettiness, I want them [the Lakers] to have a supporting cast....None of the madness like last year when they surrounded LeBron with non-shooters."

Enzo Marcos of Buhay Basket agreed, pointing as well to the Raptors as the model to follow: "I think that the recent Finals showed us that you really need a great supporting cast to win it all," he said. "They already have so much firepower with AD and Bron. Now they need guys that complement them."

Adding Davis to the roster certainly makes the Lakers a much more appealing destination now, compared to when they were just LeBron and young guys. But it's not just a matter of getting role players - they need the right kind of role players.

"I initially wanted the Lakers to go for a third superstar," said SLAM Philippines' Polo Bustamante. "It was an idiot-proof way to build a championship contender: Have three stars and fewer [opportunities] to sign guys like JaVale [McGee] and Lance [Stephenson]. Basically, I didn't want a repeat of last summer.

"But after [GM Rob] Pelinka freed up cap space, I'm thinking...maybe AD and Bron are enough, and the rest of the team can be filled out nicely."

This is also an excellent time to be in the hunt for role players too, given the number of free agents. There is a bevy of shooters, both of the pure sort and the 3-and-D guys, to fill in the gaps of this Lakers squad, enough to make fantasy GMs salivate.

To be fair of course, assembling a supporting cast may sound easy, but it rarely is. For all the stat-crunching you can do, it's hard to predict exactly how a lesser star will do in a big-time situation. Fred VanVleet famously need his wife to be born before finding his stroke, this past postseason, and while that may be an extreme example, it's important to note: the Warriors went after Kevin Durant after Harrison Barnes couldn't make anything during the 2016 Finals.

Ultimately, what the Lakers do may not entirely be in their control. After all, other GMs will be working furiously, doing their own recruiting and strategizing. The Lakers might be interested in all of these top tier free agents, but if they opt for other teams, James and Davis will be forced to bear the weight of the marquee on their own. Alternately, if a big-name star says "GET ME TO THE LAKERS," it'll be hard to say no, even if, for example, he believes the world is flat.

But what the important thing to remember ahead of 6am on Monday is this: instead of being stuck in a lane, or having their hands tied, the Lakers are capable of doing whatever they damn well please. It hasn't been that way for a while, but that's where they are now, ahead of free agency.

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