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NBA Free Agency Diary: Fine. Let’s Pretend Kawhi Is On The Lakers.

Keep track of the chaotic NBA offseason with our Free Agency Diary.

Dear NBA Diary,

With each passing day that Kawhi Leonard remains unsigned, it seems like the media speculation only intensifies that he’ll join the Los Angeles Lakers. Why? For starters, Leonard is from the area originally, and the Lakers have been mentioned as a prime destination for Leonard going back years. Plus the Lakers themselves also seem to be mega-confident about their chances. Of course, the Raptors (the team Kawhi literally just won the title with) and Clippers (L.A.’s other team) are also reportedly pushing hard for his services, so nobody truly knows how real this Laker hype is. (Some reporters have even gone as far as to track Leonard’s flights across the country, looking for any possible clues about his decision, while ESPN’s Jalen Rose said Wednesday that he was “99 percent hearing” Leonard would return to Toronto. Again, who knows?)

But but let’s say the Lakers’ dreams come true and Kawhi agrees to play with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. (My colleague Chris Herring wrote on Tuesday about how the Lakers have basically gambled their entire offseason on Leonard, so they’d better hope this happens.) Our CARMELO projections think the resulting team would have the league’s third-best regular-season offense and fourth-best overall roster — even while giving 24 of its 240 minutes per game to generic “replacement level” placeholders. Such a team would have a CARMELO rating of 1621, which roughly equates to 52.8 wins per 82 games.

That number ranks second-best in the Western Conference, trailing only the Houston Rockets (59.8). But the real damage done by the hypothetical LeBron-AD-Kawhi Lakers would occur during the playoffs. As part of our spruced up CARMELO projections for 2019-20, we have added a “playoff adjustment” for individual players. We’ll have more on how this works soon, but it essentially gives extra credit in the playoffs to players who have a history of elevating their games during the postseason — and penalties to those who have a history of underperforming. And as it happens, both James (who gets a bonus of 1.5 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs) and Leonard (who gets a bonus of 0.8 points per 100) rank among the NBA players who improve most during the postseason.

That’s why the team L.A. would hypothetically roll out in the playoffs rises to a CARMELO of 1717 and closes the gap versus Houston (1744 playoff CARMELO) for the best in the West.

With Kawhi, the playoff Lakers would have major star power

Projected full-strength playoff depth chart for the 2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers, based on CARMELO plus/minus ratings

Anthony Davis 0 0 0 1 39 40 +2.2 +3.6 5.8
LeBron James 10 0 19 10 0 39 +4.7 +1.7 6.5
Kyle Kuzma 0 0 16 19 0 35 +0.4 -0.9 -0.5
Kawhi Leonard 0 14 8 5 0 27 +3.2 +0.9 4.0
Alex Caruso 20 0 0 0 0 20 -0.9 +0.8 -0.1
Replacement-level PG 18 0 0 0 0 18 -0.7 -1.0 -1.7
Jared Dudley 0 0 2 13 0 15 -1.6 +0.4 -1.2
Troy Daniels 0 15 0 0 0 15 -0.4 -2.6 -3.1
Talen Horton-Tucker 0 9 3 0 0 12 -2.3 -0.9 -3.2
Zach Norvell Jr. 0 10 0 0 0 10 -1.8 -1.4 -3.2
Replacement-level C 0 0 0 0 9 9 -1.7 +1.3 -0.4
Team total 240 +5.2 +3.2 8.4
Expected wins: 61.3
CARMELO team rating: 1717

Either way, the Lakers would make history in how they were created if they were to get Leonard. When the original Kawhi-to-L.A. rumors started flying last summer (at that time potentially teaming him with James and Paul George), I wrote about how the resulting Big Three could create a new paradigm — one forged from scratch. This prospective Big Three of James/Leonard/Davis would fit the same bill. If the Lakers win 60 games, they would instantly rank among the best teams (by the sum of team consensus Wins Created) since the merger whose three most valuable players all made their NBA debuts with other franchises:

Will the Lakers join this list of teams made from scratch?

Best teams (by total consensus Wins Created* per 82 games) whose best three players all made their NBA debuts with other franchises

Year Team Best Players by Wins Created Team Wins Created
2008 DET C. Billups • R. Wallace • R. Hamilton 61.7
2006 DET C. Billups • B. Wallace • R. Wallace 60.5
2000 POR S. Pippen • S. Smith • R. Wallace 60.4
1997 ATL M. Blaylock • C. Laettner • D. Mutombo 58.2
1999 MIA A. Mourning • T. Hardaway • T. Porter 57.2

* An estimate of a player’s value based on an average of wins generated via Box Plus/Minus, Win Shares and Player Efficiency Rating.


All of this depends on Kawhi actually signing with the Lakers, of course. And if his free agency has taught us anything so far, it’s that the famously inscrutable Leonard isn’t giving anything away, even as the media hype builds around him.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.