Conventional wisdom suggested for many months that LeBron James would sign with the Lakers only if they could add another top-tier free agent and lure a third player in a trade in order to form a “super team” capable of challenging the Golden State Warriors for NBA supremacy.
Saturday, before the opening minutes of the free agency negotiating window, Paul George agreed to a new four-year, $137-million contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder without bothering to listen to the Lakers’ free-agent pitch. So, scratch his name from the Lakers’ wish list.
The Lakers might now target DeMarcus Cousins of the New Orleans Pelicans. David Griffin, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ former GM, was among those suggesting as much Saturday on NBA TV. “There’s a possibility that what gets it done in L.A. is pairing ‘Boogie’ with LeBron,” Griffin said, using Cousin’s nickname.
Cousins, who was having an All-Star season before suffering a torn Achilles tendon in late January, has scheduled meetings with the Lakers and Pelicans, according to ESPN. Many athletes who tear an Achilles must undergo physical therapy for a year or more before the leg recovers enough to compete, but Cousins has been telling people he expects to be ready in time for training camp, regardless of where he is playing. The Lakers likely would be interested in a short-term deal with Cousins.
The Lakers could persuade James to agree to a deal of up to $153 million over four years (though most expect him to sign a two-year with an opt-out), with their youthful roster largely intact for 2018-19. They could then re-sign restricted free agent Julius Randle and take another run at free agency a year from now, when the class is expected to be deeper (Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns).
Players can negotiate and agree to deals all week but can’t sign contracts until Friday at 9 a.m. PT.
James returned Saturday from a family vacation/strategy session on the Caribbean island of Anguilla, with a crowd of reporters and at least one news helicopter awaiting the arrival of his private jet at Van Nuys Airport. James has a home in the Los Angeles area and spends his offseasons here.
George made his announcement at a house party thrown by fellow Southern California native Russell Westbrook in George’s honor in Oklahoma City. George, from Palmdale, posted a photo of himself and Westbrook celebrating with cigars at the party. A caption read, “Unfinished business.”
George forced his way out of Indiana last year by telling the Pacers he planned to become a free agent this summer and sign with the Lakers. The Pacers then refused to trade George to the Lakers, instead sending him to the Oklahoma City Thunder where he joined Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony. The Thunder lost to Utah in the first round of the playoffs, but the Thunder recruited George heavily during and after the 2017-18 season.
It’s believed Westbrook made a persuasive argument for George to stay.
The Lakers never got a chance to present their case when the free-agent negotiating period opened at 9:01 p.m. PT on Saturday. Agreeing to a so-called “max” deal with George was assumed to be the first move that sealed the deal on an agreement with James.
The second move was the possible acquisition of disgruntled forward Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs. Talks heated up during the past week, but there was no deal in place amid speculation that Leonard could be headed to Los Angeles, but to the Clippers rather than the Lakers.
In moves calculated to address the possible loss of Leonard in a trade, the Spurs agreed to deals Saturday with free agents Rudy Gay (one year, $10 million) and Marco Belinelli of the Philadelphia 76ers (two years, $12 million).
Meanwhile, other possible, although less likely, free agents the Lakers could pair with James made their decisions quickly, and they weren’t nearly as surprising as George’s announcement that he would stay with the Thunder rather than join his hometown team.
For instance, Chris Paul agreed to return to the Houston Rockets on a four-year, $160-million deal and DeAndre Jordan agreed to a one-year deal that approached the $24.1 million he would have received if he opted in on his contract with the Clippers for 2018-19.
Earlier in the day, the Lakers announced they had waived center Thomas Bryant and they reportedly agreed to guarantee center Ivica Zubac’s $1.5-million contract for next season. Bryant has one season remaining on his contract and can be claimed by another NBA team.
Teams that might be interested in pursuing Randle appeared to be spending money on other options Saturday night, with Indiana (Doug McDermott), Brooklyn (Joe Harris, Ed Davis) and Phoenix (Trevor Ariza) agreeing to deals with other players and former Clippers center DeAndre Jordan quickly coming to terms with the Dallas Mavericks, as expected.
Randle can sign an offer sheet once the moratorium ends that the Lakers would have 48 hours to match.
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