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The Next Phase Of NBA Superteam Technology: Creating One From Scratch

When healthy, San Antonio Spurs swingman Kawhi Leonard is a card-carrying MVP candidate and one of the game’s premier all-around talents. But here’s the thing: Leonard hasn’t really been healthy since the 2017 playoffs, when he landed awkwardly on Zaza Pachulia’s foot in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. Between that season-ending ankle sprain and a mysterious quad injury that sidelined Leonard for all but nine games of the 2017-18 season — fueling rumors of a growing rift with the Spurs organization — most of the recent headlines about Leonard have been over rehab schedules and locker-room turmoil, not his on-court brilliance.

Friday’s report that Leonard wants a trade out of San Antonio was the latest (and most significant) piece of news in that department yet. According to ESPN’s Chris Haynes and Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard would prefer to be traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, which might help lay the groundwork for a superteam featuring Leonard, LeBron James and Paul George. These rumors were enough to cause a spike in the Lakers’ playoff futures, where they now have 6-1 odds of winning the 2018-19 title — after winning just 35 games last season. But while that development would shift the paradigm, would this Big Three really be able to challenge the Warriors for supremacy in the West? And are the Lakers even the team that can offer the best package in return for Leonard?

If L.A. does manage to reel in the trio of stars, it would finally replenish the Lakers’ supply of future Hall of Famers, a resource the franchise mined for championship runs almost continuously from the 1940s through the 2000s (before Kobe Bryant retired to become an Oscar-winning filmmaker). It would also represent a brand new kind of Big Three, one made entirely from scratch. Up until very recently, history’s top three-star arrangements came together at least semi-organically, with one (if not two) of the members already on the roster before the third piece of the puzzle was added. Even in newer cases such as the 2010-11 Miami Heat, you usually needed at least one existing player on the roster to play Dwyane Wade’s role and help recruit other stars to join up.

To illustrate this, here’s a list of just about every notable1 NBA Big Three since the ABA merger, along with how many of its members were already on the team before the final member joined:

A Kawhi-LeBron-PG-13 Big Three would be unique

Notable NBA Big Threes since the 1976 ABA-NBA merger, by year formed and number of stars who were already on the team’s roster

Year Team Star 1 Star 2 Star 3 prev. Stars
2019 Lakers (?) LeBron James Kawhi Leonard Paul George 0
2018 Rockets Chris Paul James Harden Trevor Ariza 2
2018 Thunder R. Westbrook C. Anthony Paul George 1
2017 Warriors Kevin Durant Stephen Curry Draymond Green 2
2015 Cavaliers LeBron James Kevin Love Kyrie Irving 1
2013 Lakers Kobe Bryant Pau Gasol Dwight Howard 2
2012 Clippers Chris Paul Blake Griffin DeAndre Jordan 2
2011 Heat LeBron James Dwyane Wade Chris Bosh 1
2010 Thunder Kevin Durant R. Westbrook James Harden 2
2008 Celtics Kevin Garnett Ray Allen Paul Pierce 1
2008 Lakers Kobe Bryant Pau Gasol Lamar Odom 2
2004 Lakers Shaquille O’Neal Kobe Bryant Gary Payton 2
2004 T-Wolves Kevin Garnett Latrell Sprewell Sam Cassell 1
2003 Spurs Tim Duncan Manu Ginobili Tony Parker 2
1997 Rockets H. Olajuwon Charles Barkley Clyde Drexler 2
1996 Bulls Michael Jordan Scottie Pippen Dennis Rodman 2
1994 Jazz Karl Malone John Stockton Jeff Hornacek 2
1994 Magic Shaquille O’Neal Penny Hardaway Nick Anderson 2
1988 Bulls Michael Jordan Scottie Pippen Horace Grant 1
1987 Pistons Isiah Thomas Adrian Dantley Bill Laimbeer 2
1983 76ers Julius Erving Moses Malone Bobby Jones 2
1983 Lakers K. Abdul-Jabbar Magic Johnson James Worthy 2
1981 Celtics Larry Bird Robert Parish Kevin McHale 1

Includes Big Threes formed by adding players through the draft.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

With Leonard coming from San Antonio, James from Cleveland and George from Oklahoma City, this would be the first Big Three we could find that formed with three newcomers all meeting in a new city. Things have been trending in that direction for a while: Although the vast majority of Big Threes in the 1980s and ’90s were formed by adding a third star to a two-man core, plenty of recent Big Threes have seen two new faces joining one existing star’s squad. But this would be a new Big Three experiment that pushes the boundaries of how they can be formed even further.

If the Lakers do manage to haul in Leonard, George and James, their new team would instantly be good enough to at least give the Warriors some competition in the Western Conference next season. Let’s mix our CARMELO projections, which use historical comparisons to model out a potential career arc for each current NBA player, with the L.A. superteam scenario detailed here by my colleague Kevin Pelton. In it, he assumes the Lakers sign James and George with their cap room, and that San Antonio accedes to a trade that sends Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Luol Deng’s onerous contract to the Spurs in exchange for Leonard. Here’s how CARMELO thinks that team looks on paper:

What a Lakers superteam might look like

Projected depth chart for the hypothetical 2018-19 Los Angeles Lakers, with CARMELO player projected plus/minus

Projected Plus/Minus
Pos Player Age MPG Offensive Defensive Total
PG Brandon Ingram 21 31 -0.3 -0.5 -0.8
Tyler Ennis 24 16 -1.1 -0.7 -1.8
SG Paul George 28 36 +2.0 +0.5 +2.5
Josh Hart 23 24 +0.5 -0.7 -0.2
SF Kawhi Leonard 27 28 +2.1 +1.3 +3.4
PF LeBron James 34 36 +5.4 +0.8 +6.2
Thomas Bryant 21 12 -1.4 -0.1 -1.5
C Nerlens Noel 24 20 -2.3 +2.8 +0.5
Ivica Zubac 21 14 -2.0 +1.0 -1.0
Replacement-level players 23 -1.7 -0.3 -2.0
Team total 240 +3.7 +2.1 +5.9

Assumes Lakers sign LeBron James and Paul George with cap space, trade with San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard and use a salary-cap exception to sign a big man (such as Nerlens Noel).

Age is as of Feb. 1, 2019.

Source: ESPN.com

CARMELO would expect that team, with a projected efficiency margin of plus-5.9 points per 100 possessions, to win about 54 games next season, even with stray waiver-wire pickups logging 10 percent of the team’s available minutes. The team would also have the star power of a bona fide championship contender, with James arguably ranking as the best player in the league,2 Leonard capable of snagging MVP votes and George checking in as a five-time All-Star by the age of 28. There would be questions about fit — since James, Leonard and George overlap in both position and skill set — and no guarantees about Leonard’s health. But this Big Three would certainly vault L.A. back into the championship conversation, where it hasn’t resided in a while.

However, before these Laker bros start making plans for a parade down Figueroa Street next June, it’s fair to ask whether the Lakers are really the most likely destination for Leonard. Although Leonard may want to play in L.A., he’s also still under contract with the Spurs for one more season, so San Antonio still controls where he’d eventually end up landing. And if they can help it, I’m guessing Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford would prefer not to set a superteam up for the franchise that’s faced the Spurs in 34 playoff games since San Antonio’s dynasty began in the late nineties.

Moreover, Los Angeles may not even have the best package to offer the Spurs in a deal for Leonard. Our colleagues at ESPN.com put together their seven favorite potential Leonard trades, including the Lakers’ Ball/Kuzma/Deng swap mentioned above. For each of those scenarios, I added up CARMELO’s five-year upside values, which project a player’s wins above replacement over the next five seasons with negative-value comparable players zeroed out.3 According to that measure, L.A.’s deal is among the best San Antonio might be able to get — but it has competition from Miami, Toronto, Philadelphia and others:4

Who will teams offer in exchange for Kawhi?

Five-year CARMELO upside* values for selected trade packages involving Kawhi Leonard, according to ESPN.com’s Insiders

team Players tot.
MIA Dragic 5 Richardson 14 Winslow 11 Adebayo 17 48
LAL Ball 37 Kuzma 10 Deng 1 47
TOR DeRozan 12 Anunoby 22 Siakam 11 45
PHI Covington 24 Fultz 8 10th pick 9 40
BOS Irving 24 27th pick 3 27
BOS Hayward 7 Rozier 14 21
POR McCollum 12 Rd 1 pick 4 16

* CARMELO’s “upside” measurements are a version of our ratings in which comparable players who project to have a negative value are zeroed out instead.

Numbers may not add up because of rounding.

Source: ESPN.com

Injury status notwithstanding, superstars like Leonard don’t come up for grabs on the trade market often, and where they end up landing can often shape the destiny of the league. If Leonard does ultimately team up with James and George, the resulting Big Three would indeed reshape the NBA championship picture for years to come. The financials of such a deal are tricky, though doable. What’s unknown now is the desire of Leonard, James and George to play together — a necessary component, since the latter two are free agents — and whether the Spurs would be willing to trade their star to a rival team in the West. In other words, this Big Three is unlikely as the situation currently stands. But just the same, we’ve seen stranger things than this happen during the NBA’s summer silly season. Stay tuned.

Footnotes

  1. I realize I am stretching that definition by considering, say, the 2004 Timberwolves’ combination of Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell with Kevin Garnett as a Big Three.

  2. CARMELO projects him to finish a close second behind Russell Westbrook in total value next year.

  3. This is done in order to keep a player from being penalized for a historical comparable who was penciled into the lineup despite poor play — which was presumably more the coach’s fault than the player’s.

  4. For the values of draft picks, I used the five-year expected value of a pick found here. For Portland’s 2019 pick, I arbitrarily assigned it the value of the No. 20 overall pick. (The Blazers pick 24th this year.)

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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