The Los Angeles Lakers are in a prime position to repeat as NBA champions next season. And that’s good, because when you have LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the roster, winning rings is the expectation.
General manager Rob Pelinka did an outstanding job filling out the roster around his two superstars last offseason, bringing in several veteran players who contributed to the franchise winning its 17th title. And while the Lakers only have limited options to try and improve the roster, there are a few moves Pelinka can make to increase the team’s financial flexibility and add some more pieces for next season.
I caught up with ESPN’s Brian Windhorst to preview L.A.’s offseason, and what the future holds for LeBron.
Q: What did you think of the Lakers’ dominance in Orlando, and what moves can Pelinka make to improve the roster going into next season?
Windhorst: “Two things about the bubble: I knew how LeBron James was going to play. There’s not a secret about his production in the playoffs. Anthony Davis was absolutely awesome, which is not a surprise. But you know, his playoff production previously wavered. But I’ll tell you what, do you know what a great elixir is if you have some issues? Play with LeBron James. Everybody seems to get better.
“Their role players were just great. So if you’re Rob Pelinka, you have to ask yourself, do we want to bank on that happening again? Or do we want to look for upgrades? If I were Rob, I would look for upgrades. I think the real question is (this): Is the value there for Danny Green that you could trade? He did not obviously have a very good year. But he’s got one year left on his contract. And there’s a possibility that there could be value for him; I think the Lakers will investigate that.”
Q: What should the Lakers do with KCP? What kind of leverage does he have in negotiations?
Windhorst: “That is going to be a tough negotiation, man. Because this is very similar to what happened with J.R. Smith right after the Cavs won a title in 2016 and it’s relevant because he’s represented by Rich Paul. On that team, Rich Paul represented LeBron James, represented Tristan Thompson — not that Tristan is like Anthony Davis — but he had two starters elsewhere. I remember the Cavs’ position was like look, ‘there’s nobody out there offering J.R. Smith this money, we can’t pay J.R. this money, it’s not market value.’ Basically, what Rich said to the Cavaliers at the time was, ‘our leverage with J.R. is not that he’s got a bigger offer elsewhere. Our leverage is you can’t replace him. If he walks away from you, you don’t have an option to go sign somebody that could replace his value. And that is the exact same position, in my view, that KCP is in.
“If I’m Rich Paul, I’m saying ‘KCP is better than Danny Green. You pay Danny Green $15 million. I will accept $15.1 million, and let’s do a three-year deal.’ If your retort to that is there is nobody out there who is going to pay Kentavious Caldwell-Pope $15 million a year, I would agree with you, especially in this market. But, I can see Rich Paul saying, ‘Yeah, he is worth 15 million to you.’ And I ultimately think that the Lakers should pay it. I’m not saying it’s $15 million, whatever the number they agree on, whether it’s $15 million, whether it’s $13 million, whatever it is because again, I think you want to have the asset. I think if you’re the Lakers, I think you re-sign Rondo and give him some decent money. I think you sign Kyle Kuzma and give him some decent money. I think you re-sign KCP and give him some decent money. No. 1, the Lakers can afford it. No. 2, their biggest issue right now on upgrading this roster is that they don’t have much to trade. Well, this gives you some things that you can put together potentially to trade.
“There’s a deal out there for them for another guard. That would be interesting. I’ll see if they actually go forward with it. It’s a guard on the last year of his contract who was great last year for his team and that team may be looking to move him. That would be interesting. But, I say pay the guys, you have the money, and not only do you bring the team back and bring them back sort of happy, but, you also prepare yourself for the next layer of transactions, which you’re eventually going to need to refresh this team down the road.”
Q: The Lakers are up against the cap. How can Pelinka improve the team’s financial flexibility to potentially acquire some pieces in the short-term and the future?
Windhorst: “The other thing is a Kuzma extension, which I think you have to consider. I would pay Kyle Kuzma for no other reason than I need the asset. By the way, let me just say I don’t like talking about players as assets, but when I speak to NBA teams, this is how they talk about them. I have spent quite a bit of time with Kyle; I absolutely love him as a guy. I love that dude. He is a great, great dude. I want to be clear that I don’t want to discuss him and say I’m just trying to trade him off. I would extend Kyle’s so that he becomes an asset for you, and I would extend him now when the price may be lower because he didn’t have the greatest year.”
Q: How many more years will LeBron play in the NBA?
Windhorst: “He’s reached this incredible moment in his career. We’ve seen it with other athletes. It’s still pretty rare though. When you see a guy who’s absolutely at the top of the game mentally, I’m not going to get into a comparison, but I don’t know if there’s ever been a guy who has mental control of the game better than LeBron. I don’t know if he’s the best or whatever. But, you sometimes see that with incredible players, but when they reach that level of total consciousness is when their body breaks down. I call it the golden sunset. He’s in this golden sunset. How long is this golden sunset going to last? Kobe didn’t really get that because he had the Achilles injury, but Kobe was that level. He was right there. Jordan did have it. The Jordan second three-peat is essentially where LeBron is now. That’s what I see for him now.
“We’re hoping that he doesn’t get injured. But, if he doesn’t get injured, I think this could be a long summer golden sunset. I see the limitations that he has in his game. I see where he slipped, I see his athleticism slipping, but I see him more than make up for it by the way he controls the game in his mind. If you go back and watch film from him from like, 2007, that’s where you see what LeBron used to be. If you go watch, like a 2007 game, you won’t you won’t be like, ‘oh my god, I didn’t remember that LeBron was this physically gifted, my god, look at him. You know, boy, he really has lost a step.’ But, then you watch how that 2007 LeBron played, and you see how this LeBron played. He really had no idea what he was doing back then. Look at this shot; what’s this possession? What was he doing on defense there? That’s ridiculous. But that’s what so remarkable, you appreciate how much his game has grown.”
Q: Is catching Michael Jordan’s six titles his primary motivation to continue playing?
Windhorst: “I think one of the interesting things will be, will he look to sign another multi-year deal, which he will be able to do thanks to the Chris Paul Rule, or will he take another one-year deal and leave his options open? But I think he’s in this glorious sunset. I think he smells blood again on the six rings. You know, he smelled blood when he got number three. After he came back from 3-1 down, which is when he thought he was on top of the world and untouchable, he did an interview with Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, I can’t remember the exact quote, he first brought up the concept of chasing the ghost, but now he basically announced that I’m chasing Michael. Well, guess what, then Durant came to the Warriors, and he was slapped down a peg. His team wasn’t good enough. So, I think the ring chaser in him diminished a little bit. Now, I think he’s got that smell in his nostrils again, like wait a minute, look how good this A.D. guy is, and we’re going to be together here.
“They looked pretty damn good in this playoff run. I mean, no matter what he says, they were even better than LeBron thought they were going to be. I don’t care what he says publicly about that playoff run; they were so awesome taking those teams out like they did. They just clubbed team after team, and that Miami team was freaking good. I realize they had the injuries but that Miami team was good, and the Lakers just took them down. So, my guess is he smells it, and that will only further activate him.”
Big thanks to Brian for sitting down with us. You can follow him on Twitter at @WindhorstESPN.