That help would most likely come in the form of Kawhi Leonard or Paul George — or, ideally, both — but there are some other possibilities, including Chris Paul, James’s longtime friend. All of those players have their own major decisions to make, although Leonard’s situation is the most complex, because he is still under contract with the Spurs for one more season.
San Antonio would prefer to bring back the two-time NBA defensive player of the year and 2014 Finals MVP, with a contract extension worth over $200 million somewhere on the table, but Leonard distanced himself from the team last season while missing most of it with a mysteriously stubborn thigh injury. A Southern California native, Leonard reportedly wants to defect to the Lakers, but that team has a difficult choice to make in terms of how many assets to offer the Spurs in a trade, as opposed to possibly being able to wait a year and sign him in free agency.
However, the Lakers likely can’t wait until 2019 to acquire both Leonard and James, although that’s not out of the question, and they might not even be able to wait until the weekend to ramp up trade negotiations with San Antonio. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne, “pressure is mounting” on Magic Johnson and his front-office staff with the Lakers to execute a deal with the Spurs before Friday’s deadline for James to exercise the contract clause that would enable him to hit the open market.
Citing league sources, ESPN described James as “hesitant” to commit to Los Angeles before it can land another elite player, and the urgency to acquire Leonard has increased with speculation that George may choose to eschew his own opt-out clause and remain with the Thunder for another season. Also a native of Southern California, George has long been thought to be eyeing a chance to join the Lakers, but his time spent with Oklahoma City may have given him second thoughts about leaving Russell Westbrook and Co.
James, though, may be trying to talk George out of staying put. A recent report by the Orange County Register’s Mark Heisler included this quote from a source identified as a general manager for an Eastern Conference team: “LeBron is doing what he does: calling players on other teams he wants to play with.”
That proactive approach was cited in a report Wednesday by the Sporting News’s Sean Deveney, before ESPN’s trio of reporters weighed in, in which a league executive said that James and his camp was “doing enough research to suggest that he’s going to be willing to take that plunge” of joining the Lakers and “let the roster come together.” The executive pointed out a similar dynamic played out “in Cleveland four years ago,” when James very publicly declared he would leave the Heat for the Cavs, after which the latter team made a blockbuster trade for Kevin Love.
If James and George were to opt out and join the Lakers, which has the salary-cap space to sign two top-tier free agents, that could potentially afford the team the luxury of waiting a year for Leonard to play out his contract, or at least give it more leverage in talks with San Antonio. Johnson said Tuesday that he saw his team’s plan to attract superstar talent as “a two-summer thing,” meaning this offseason and the next, telling reporters, “You have to give us time.”
Meanwhile, James’s oldest son, LeBron James Jr., also has two summers to go before he enters high school, and the possible site of those formative years has become part of the free-agency conversation. That’s because 13-year-old “Bronny,” a highly regarded basketball player in Ohio, is very “likely” to enroll at a prestigious Los Angeles high school, according to a TMZ Sports report Wednesday, although it’s apparently “not a done deal.”
James already has two homes in Los Angeles, so there are plenty of non-basketball-related reasons to think that he may well decide to take his considerable talents there. That could play into the patient strategy Johnson is professing, but the Lakers may have to push their chips to the center of the table much sooner than they might prefer, if they want to make James’s Friday decision that much easier.
Read more from The Post: