July 3, 2018, 5:47 pm
LeBron James might be the smartest player in NBA history. He’s always thinking the game one or two steps ahead, creating passing and driving lanes only he can see coming, and thwarting the opposition with early, disruptive defensive rotations – at least when locked in on that side of the ball, of course.
“He’s so ahead of the game right now, it’s not even funny,” Dwane Casey said in December 2016, months after James and the Cleveland Cavaliers eliminated his Toronto Raptors from the playoffs, and before they would do it twice more in even more devastating fashion, with consecutive second-round sweeps.
At 33, James isn’t the consistently nuclear athlete he was a decade or even five years ago. The jumper, though clearly improved, still comes and goes, and he doesn’t commit to playing in the post with any type of regularity until spring. The lack of sustained defensive engagement, even in the playoffs, is a problem that warrants more attention.
No matter. There’s an argument to be made that James has never been better, at the peak of his powers when most players begin sharply declining because his intellect has matched, or perhaps even surpassed, his unique combination of size, athleticism and skill. Did you notice the complete lack of concern that James, at 37, will fail to live up to his $41 million player option for 2021-22? Those crickets weren’t just an acknowledgement of what he means for the Los Angeles Lakers as a free-agent recruiter and brand ambassador, but also the certainty that his understanding of the game, ever growing, will allow him to wield the on-court influence of a superstar even as his physical capabilities start noticeably fading. James is as close to ageless as a sport like basketball allows its players to be.
Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka know that, and James’ minimum commitment to the Lakers of three years ensured they wouldn’t be forced to sacrifice the long-term for the short. Finally, a team could be grown and developed around him rather than pasted together on the fly. To be clear, none of the moves Los Angeles made in the wake of James’ agreement limit its flexibility going forward. The only player added in free agency this summer who will definitely be around past next season is James; one-year contracts, obviously, have no bearing on the Lakers’ ability to create max cap space going forward.
Still, it’s not like that heartening reality makes Los Angeles’ post-James free-agency binge much more defensible. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the best player among those additions, and it’s not particularly close. His performance as a shooter finally aligned with his reputation last season, when he hit 38.3 percent of his nearly six 3-point attempts per game. Caldwell-Pope isn’t a deadeye, and doesn’t have the shooting versatility of James’ former teammates like Ray Allen and Kyle Korver. He’s far more reliable launching off kick-outs and simple ball movement than sprinting around screens and letting fly without his feet set. Given his ability to capably defend both guard spots and even some wings, though, Los Angeles certainly could do worse than Caldwell-Pope as a backcourt starter.
But why the Lakers deemed it necessary to pay him $12 million less than 24 hours after free agency began is unclear. A competitive market for Caldwell-Pope never materialized publicly, and the lack of cap space throughout the league means it might never have. Regardless, his deal was announced less than an hour after James’, as general managers, agents and players found themselves frantically responding to the summer’s biggest domino falling earlier than anyone anticipated. Well, except Rich Paul, James’ agent and long-time friend, who just happens to represent Caldwell-Pope, too.
Paul’s chief responsibility isn’t building the best supporting cast around James. His allegiance in contract negotiations lies with the player he’s representing, and through that lens, Paul did well for Caldwell-Pope. But that dynamic doesn’t explain away Los Angeles’ extreme haste in coming to terms with Caldwell-Pope, nor its even more surprising agreements with Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo.
Ignore the endless list of questions about on-court fit and locker-room chemistry for a moment. After ending years of free-agency failure by bringing in the greatest player of his generation on July 1, the Lakers suddenly possessed the present-day cachet befitting their status as 16-time champions in the league’s glitziest and most desirable destination. No one in the league influences player movement like James, and Los Angeles used all of its meaningful cap space less than a day after he made his decision. What was the rush?
The Lakers’ urgency would make more sense if the players who committed to them were highly valued in a basketball vacuum, but that’s just not the case – for reasons plainly obvious to anyone who’s followed the NBA over the last decade. Stephenson indeed rehabilitated his career in a second go-around with the Indiana Pacers last season. After failing to catch on with a team two years ago despite multiple regular-season auditions, he re-established himself as a viable NBA player in 2017-18, if one who won’t ever be able to completely curb his worst tendencies.
At the $4.5 million room exception, though, Los Angeles surely could have done better than a ball-dominant, non-shooting malcontent whose main utility is his mild effectiveness defending four positions. It’s hard to imagine there was much of a market for Stephenson at that price. McGee, meanwhile, was had for the veteran’s minimum, an objectively fair value for a career-long question mark who flashed in the postseason playing a narrow, defined role for an all-time juggernaut. Someone would have given McGee his $2.4 million, definitely, and the Lakers were in need of a vertical spacer and shot-blocker.
Yet like with Caldwell-Pope and Stephenson, why lock him down so soon? Would earmarking a minimum space for McGee on Sunday, then perusing the pool of available big men over the next few days to follow really have risked him later turning it down?
At least McGee’s deal doesn’t complicate Los Angeles’ salary structure; the same can’t be said for Rondo’s. Logistical context makes his one-year, $9 million even more frustrating. Los Angeles renounced its rights to Julius Randle, who reportedly wanted to play elsewhere, on Monday afternoon, shedding his cap hold and creating $13.8 million in additional space. Literally six minutes after ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski broke that news, he reported that Rondo had agreed with the Lakers.
Randle’s preference to leave Los Angeles was no secret; those rumors swirled well before July 1. It’s fair to assume, then, that available players were operating under the assumption the Lakers would eventually have an open eight-figure salary slot. All of that cap space wasn’t a surprise, basically, as evidenced by Johnson and Pelinka ostensibly negotiating with Rondo before having the space to give him $9 million. Maybe the Lakers did their diligence, only to learn Rondo was the best option to use the funds made accessible by granting Randle’s wish.
Succeeding deals across the league cast doubt on that possibility. Later on Monday, DeMarcus Cousins took the mini mid-level from the Golden State Warriors, a one-off contract that will pay him barely more than Stephenson. Avery Bradley would have fit snugly into Los Angeles’ cap before agreeing to a two-year, $25 million deal – only partially guaranteed for its second season, reports ESPN’s Zach Lowe – to return to the Clippers. The reborn Tyreke Evans, who shot a league-leading 40.8 percent on pull-up triples last season, got a one-year, $12 million deal from the Indiana Pacers.
Wouldn’t one of those guys have given the Lakers a better chance to compete this season than Rondo? Despite making strides as a shooter, teams still don’t treat him like a legitimate 3-point threat, going under ball screens and cheating an extra step or two off of him away from the ball. And that’s the other thing: Rondo, like James, is best utilized with the ball in his hands. James frequently bemoaned the Cavaliers’ lack of playmaking depth during his last two seasons in Cleveland, but Los Angeles has gone overboard in that regard, puzzlingly prioritizing ball-dominance over long-range shooting in secondary free agency despite the presence of James, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball.
There’s the development of young incumbents to consider here, too. It’s already been made clear that Rondo and Ball will compete to start at point guard. Stephenson will certainly cut into the playing time of Josh Hart, solid on both ends as a rookie, and perhaps Kuzma’s depending on how Luke Walton constructs his lineups. Only Caldwell-Pope and McGee fill real needs on the Lakers’ roster, which makes the signings of Stephenson and Rondo – let alone the timing and cost associated with them – even more confusing.
Unless, of course, someone uniquely familiar with each of Los Angeles’ latest free agents is pulling the strings from behind the curtain. On Monday afternoon, less than two days after James and Johnson met for three hours to cement the former’s future in purple and gold, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported the Lakers are “pretty darn sure” James, vacationing in Europe, approves of their subsequent deals in free agency.
James, basketball genius, has never been good at helping management fill out the bottom half of his team’s roster. He prefers veterans to youngsters, and routinely lets personal relationships affect his appraisal of a player’s actual worth. Isn’t it conceivable that James, extremely familiar with Stephenson, McGee and Rondo, signed off on their additions? Given his clout in the basketball world and the need for all franchises, even Los Angeles, to placate their superstars, it would be remiss to assume otherwise.
The Lakers still have just below $6 million in cap space to dole out, and are surely maintaining contact with the San Antonio Spurs regarding Kawhi Leonard. They aren’t quite finished this summer. But adding a sharpshooter like Wayne Ellington or versatile forward like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute won’t undo the mistakes Los Angeles has already made, and trading for Leonard might only exacerbate them. There isn’t a move left on the chess board that would change that equation; it’s difficult to fathom what one might even look like.
The Lakers have already won the offseason. Getting James alone drastically alters their immediate fortunes, and they haven’t given away any more long-term money. Signing Leonard, or any other superstar free agent, into cap space next summer is still very much on the table. But the fact remains that Los Angeles is no longer the blank canvass it was after James announced he was coming to town.
We know, for the most part, what the Lakers will look like next season, and why James is sure to endure frustration he might have been able to avoid if they’d taken a different approach to spending the cash not used on him. Why the smartest player in the league seems to have signed off on the deals that will inevitably prompt it, though, is another thing entirely.