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NBA Free Agency Diary: Waiting On Kawhi Could Mean The Lakers Miss Out On Everyone

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

After a chaotic first day of NBA free agency, and a second day on which many of the solid remaining role players got scooped up, a couple of teams are left walking a fine line as they await a decision from this summer’s ultimate prize.

With what we just saw in the playoffs, a stage he thoroughly dominated, no one can doubt the allure of Kawhi Leonard and how drastically he would improve a team. Leonard has the Lakers, Clippers and Raptors on hold for the moment, as executives from those teams nervously grind their teeth while hoping for the best.

The process is even higher stakes for those teams because of how much of the best talent has already dried up in the fast-moving marketplace — especially for the cap-strapped Lakers.

On Monday, useful guards like Seth Curry (a Lakers target) and Austin Rivers came off the board, agreeing to deals with Dallas and Houston, respectively. Similarly, big man Enes Kanter — whose name came up in conjunction with the Lakers — struck a two-year deal with the Celtics. All are players who fill particular roles and could be valuable to a contender.

Yet because of the money needed to give to Leonard, the Clippers and Lakers can’t do all that much until the superstar makes up his mind about where he wants to play next season.

This isn’t to say absolutely nothing can get done, of course. The Clippers entered free agency with enough space for two max-level free agents, but once it became clear that Leonard was the only one they still had a chance of landing, the team dipped into some of its cap space by making a good value deal with rugged stopper Pat Beverley. They also swooped in and dealt for forward Maurice Harkless, a starting-caliber forward, in Miami’s sprawling Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade. (The move eats about $11 million in cap space, but it also netted the Clips a future first-round pick.)

The Lakers agreed to a veteran’s minimum deal with Troy Daniels, who’s known for his long-distance accuracy but not much else. This is the extent of what they can do for now, though. As a team that just barely has the space to afford Leonard’s max deal, the Lakers don’t have excess cap to throw at anyone else without knowing what the two-time NBA Finals MVP is doing. They’re rumored to have interest in fellow Raptors free agent Danny Green, but Green, a 3-and-D specialist, is reportedly waiting on Leonard, which would give him a better sense of whether he should return to Toronto for a possible title defense. (And unfortunately for the Lakers, even if Leonard were to sign with the Clippers, it sounds like Dallas will be the front-runner for Green’s services if Leonard ends up leaving the defending champions for one of the Los Angeles clubs.)

This waiting game is an unintended consequence of the split-it-up strategy for handling the Lakers’ cap space. The notion of building a deeper roster, particularly after last season’s debacle with the injury to LeBron James, makes sense. But no team would pass up the chance to sign someone as talented as Leonard, especially with how wide open the title race is at this point.

Still, even on Day 1 of free agency, we saw the value in a team getting its bad news early. Golden State learned as free agency was opening that Kevin Durant would be going elsewhere, an obvious blow to the team’s future but one that happened quickly enough so that the Warriors could orchestrate a sign-and-trade for D’Angelo Russell. Even if the move doesn’t make them a contender this coming season — and presents obvious questions from a fit standpoint — it likely will provide Golden State some flexibility down the line, given that other clubs may have interest in trading for him. And had Durant made his choice much later in the week, the Dubs may not have had that chance.

In a way, that’s what makes this free-agency period so challenging for the Lakers. The pursuit for Leonard is tantamount to a spin on “Wheel of Fortune.” The team could very well end up hitting the jackpot and making themselves the clear title favorite. But it could also bankrupt their free agency and leave them with few role players of note next to James and Anthony Davis.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.