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Lakers trade for Anthony Davis: Why championship talk is premature until Los Angeles adds a third star

In a trade that was starting to feel more and more inevitable, the Lakers have acquired Anthony Davis from the Pelicans in exchange for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and three first-round picks, including the No. 4 overall selection in next week’s draft, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. 

From a PR standpoint, this is a huge win for the Lakers, who desperately needed to reset their narrative as an organization crumbling from within. This restores some faith in a maligned front office now headed by Rob Pelinka, who has at least bought himself a fair bit of equity with an impatient fanbase and the hoards of critics convinced he’s not fit for his job. 

We’ll see what he does with it. 

After all, a splash move is one thing. It grabs headlines and recharges a fanbase. But it’s not enough. The Lakers fooled themselves into thinking LeBron James was going to immediately make them a title contender, a barrage of ill-advised roster moves around him notwithstanding, and they found out the hard way that it’s not that easy. 

Yes, they’ve put one of the seven or eight best players in the league, and probably one of the three or four best from a pure talent standpoint, next to LeBron. It’s a power couple, no doubt. You’re going to start hearing people throw the Lakers around as a title favorite, and in fact, Vegas already says they are. 

Title favorites? That’s a bit much. Yes, they’re going to be really good assuming LeBron and Davis stay healthy, but that’s no sure thing. Beyond that, we need to talk about all they gave up and what moves they might still be able to make to truly turn this team into a championship contender. 

Talk to a cross-section of people around the league, and you’ll get a wide swath of opinions as it pertains to Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. Some scouts like one but not the other. One GM told CBS Sports he’s “never loved Ingram,” while others believe he’s a star waiting to pop. Has Lonzo been a disappointment or just misused as a largely off-ball player? I think the Pelicans are getting a really good player in Ball. 

But next to LeBron neither Ball nor Ingram was going to fully develop, and in that sense the trade is good for everyone independent of how Ball and Ingram show out for New Orleans. That said, we just saw a Warriors team with four All-NBA level players fall short of a title due in large part to a severe lack of depth. Four stars weren’t enough for them once a bit of bad luck kicked in. Two stars won’t be enough for the Lakers to win a title. The league has gotten too good. 

Of course, the Lakers aren’t done. Or at least they hope they’re not. Per ESPN’s salary cap guru Bobby Marks, the Lakers will have at least $27.8 million in cap space heading into free agency, and it could be more than that. 

The difference between $27.8M and $32.5M is significant. Per Marc Stein of the New York Times, the Lakers plan to pursue Kemba Walker as their main free agent target. Walker’s first-year salary on a max deal would be $32.7 million, so unless he’s willing to take a smaller cut, the Lakers need the higher amount of space to get Walker, or any other max free agent, for that matter, with less than 10 years of service. That would include Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Kyrie Irving, among others. 

What will make the difference between the Lakers having the smaller or larger amount of cap space to work with in their attempt to add a third star?

From ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski:

If both sides agree to push back the trade call until July 30, Los Angeles will have $32.5 million in room to use in free agency. By waiting the 30 days, Los Angeles would be acting like a team over the cap and would be allowed to use the fourth pick in the draft as salary. If the trade is finalized on July 6, that number will shrink to $27.8 million.

In other words, the Pelicans have to do the Lakers a favor by waiting a month from the start of free agency (June 30) to make the trade official. In doing so, the Pelicans would gain $5 million in cap room on their end, but is that enough incentive to pave the way for the Lakers to sign a third superstar with max money? It’s fair to assume this was discussed and agreed upon, one way or the other, prior to the deal being made. 

If the Lakers do end up with enough money to sign a max free agent to put next to LeBron and Davis — whether it’s Walker or, say, a LeBron reunion with Kyrie — then, and only then, does this team become a legitimate title favorite. Beyond that, Pelinka will have to fill out the roster in a much smarter way than he and Magic Johnson did in the wake of signing LeBron, and he won’t have many resources to do it with all the money spent up. 

This is where Pelinka will earn his money. The Lakers’ name and location landed them LeBron. Rich Paul and LeBron landed them Davis. Pelinka will have to do his work on the margins, signing shooters, switchable defenders, players who “fit” a team that is still largely undeveloped. 

Along these “fit” lines, the fact that the Lakers kept Kyle Kuzma is no small thing. He’s not the best player of the former young Lakers’ core (I think Lonzo and Ingram are both better, and maybe even Hart), but he probably fits the best next to LeBron as a capable and confident shooter with microwavable scoring abilities, and more importantly, as a willing and instinctual cutter and improvisational player who can provide offense without creating it. We saw Kuzma really mesh with LeBron as a cutter last year. 

Again, you’re going to see rave Lakers reviews for this trade on name value alone. But slow down. We have to see what they do from here. Remember, there was a time when Carmelo Anthony forced the Knicks to trade basically all their depth and most of their future when he could’ve just gone to them a few months later as a free agent. This isn’t exactly the same. Davis would have to wait a full year to go to the Lakers as a free agent next summer, and LeBron is in place whereas the Knicks had nothing left to put alongside Anthony. 

Still, until we see the Lakers do something big with whatever cap space they end up having, it’s just Davis and LeBron, and the latter of those two only has two guaranteed years left in Los Angeles. After that, Davis could be left alone on a team that he forced to give up everything to get him. I don’t think that’s going to happen. But it could. And it’s the job of everyone in the Lakers’ organization to not let it.