While Magic Johnson plays it cool regarding his chances to add major free agents to the Los Angeles Lakers, pressure to create his own superteam in L.A. may be mounting behind the scenes.
One day after Johnson, the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, told local media he would step down if he can’t land prominent free agents by the end of next summer, ESPN reported Wednesday that league sources say internally the Lakers are pressing to work out a trade with the San Antonio Spurs for forward Kawhi Leonard before LeBron James decides his free agency fate.
ESPN later reported that the Lakers “re-engaged the Spurs Wednesday in aggressively pursuing” Leonard.
James faces a Friday deadline to opt out of the final year of his existing contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He could opt out and re-sign with Cleveland, although the strong current from national media is James appears ready to move again.
But the national media consensus hints that James does not wish to be the first big domino if he chooses to join the young Lakers and instead prefers to see which assets the storied franchise can add, and keep, to help the Cavaliers superstar in his hunt for a fourth NBA championship and beyond.
League sources also told ESPN that the Lakers’ nerves in the front office are frayed more with recent reports that free agent Paul George may choose to stay in Oklahoma City instead of sign with his hometown Lakers, as many in the media have seen as a foregone conclusion for most of the last season.
The challenge to woo the Spurs into shipping Leonard to L.A., however, is daunting. According to the ESPN report, the Lakers came away from their initial conversation with San Antonio about Leonard as if the Spurs had “shut the door on us.” Other teams reportedly interested in Leonard include the Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers, Philadelphia 76ers and L.A. Clippers.
According to a separate ESPN report, James is unlikely to visit other teams or take an audience with suitors as he did in past free-agent circuits. In fact, James might not even speak with top team officials before making a decision on his destination for next season.
In 2014, he returned to the Cavaliers after an in-person meeting with team owner Dan Gilbert. Their relationship was never a great one, but has further splintered in recent years.
In 2010, James bolted Cleveland in a nationally televised announcement, “The Decision,” during which he infamously declared he was taking his “talents to South Beach” and joining the Miami Heat. Before he joined the Heat, James had meetings with the Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Clippers, where team representatives pitched the All-Star with personalized presentations and marketing plans.
James has played in the NBA Finals eight consecutive seasons.
ESPN reported the number of teams James and his representatives, Rich Paul and Mark Termini, could be interested in as free agents will be small.
Speculation centers around contenders, including the Houston Rockets, Spurs, Lakers, 76ers and Celtics, but James shed no light on his plans in multiple interviews broaching the topic.
—Field Level Media