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NBA Daily: With LeBron in Place, What Comes Next for LA?

After landing LeBron James, David Yapkowitz looks at the Lakers’ next move.

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The dust has cleared and LeBron James is a Los Angeles Laker. There had been rumblings all season that this had a good chance of happening, but it still felt very surreal until it actually occurred. No matter how anyone tries to spin it, this was a major win for the Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka front office.

Now that James is firmly in place, the question becomes: what else does the front office plan to do to get the Lakers back to championship level? James didn’t come to Los Angeles to babysit and wait on development while wasting away the years he has left playing at a high level.

As currently constructed, the Lakers are still not at the level of the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets. Following the James signing, the Lakers made a few follow-up moves by re-signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and signing Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee.

All three of those guys are decent role guys that would serve as good complimentary pieces for a playoff team with title aspirations. With a playmaker like James in place, Caldwell-Pope should see no shortage of open looks from the three-point line. Despite having an up and down year, he still shot 38.3 percent from long range.

Despite being hit with a bit of a negative reputation early in his career, McGee has proven himself the past two years as an integral member of the Golden State Warriors. He’s quick and active around the rim and good in the pick and roll. He’ll see his fair share of lob passes from James.

Stephenson is a bit of a wild card. He is a deadly, albeit at times inconsistent, scorer. He’s also an underrated perimeter defender. He had a resurgent season in Indiana after sort of falling off the map when he left the Pacers the first time. Here’s betting that he has another strong year with James feeding him the ball.

But even then, the Lakers are still missing something that would vault them into the upper echelon in the Western Conference. The next step for them should be continuing their attempts at trading for Kawhi Leonard. Provided that Leonard is fully healthy from the injury that plagued him this past season, he and James would form a deadly one-two punch.

When healthy, Leonard is arguably a top-five player in the league. He’s one of the top perimeter defenders who can make life hell for either Golden State or Houston’s backcourt. If there’s a real opportunity for the Lakers to nab Leonard, they need to take that chance. Yes, it’s going to cost them several of their young guys. But now that James is here, championships should be the focus.

They can also get help from a largely forgotten player who is already on the roster. When the Lakers signed Luol Deng two years ago, it was a head-scratcher of a deal for sure. The old regime has since been replaced and Deng has been relegated to little more than end of the bench duties.

It’s not his fault, though. He got caught in the middle of a front office revamp that prioritized young player development. Despite that, he’s remained a complete professional with not so much as a peep. Provided that he isn’t dumped in a trade or bought out and stretched, he can help this team win now. It wasn’t too long ago that he was a valuable contributor to the Miami Heat in the playoffs, particularly as a stretch four. He can still provide the Lakers with valuable minutes off the bench.

They’re also going to need someone a bit more dependable up front. McGee was a starter at times with the Warriors, but he’s best suited to coming off the bench. One intriguing name that the Lakers have been linked to over the weekend is Nerlens Noel.

The former lottery pick reportedly turned down a big contract extension from the Dallas Mavericks last offseason. He was a largely forgotten man at the end of the Mavericks bench similar to Deng. He’d be a perfect fit at center alongside James. The only question is, would he come for a minimum contract?

Despite the Lakers needing more to truly compete with the elite teams in the West, there’s no denying that this was an absolute victory for the Lakers front office. Magic Johnson recently told reporters he’d step down if the Lakers failed to land marquee free agents in either this summer or next. He didn’t just land a marquee free agent, he landed the best player in the league.

They’ve still got their work cut out for them, though. For a storied franchise like the Lakers, the expectation is championships especially now that James in the fold. Now it’s not realistic to expect the Lakers to become title contenders overnight. They’ve got James locked in for at least three years before he has the ability to opt out of his contract.

Los Angeles has always been a popular free agent destination and the Lakers will probably find themselves with no shortage of veterans willing to take less money for a chance at a ring. They’ll have their opportunities, but trading for Leonard should be the first step back to becoming relevant again.

David Yapkowitz has been a staff writer for Basketball Insiders since 2017. Based in Los Angeles, he focuses on the Pacific Division as well as the NBA at large.

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