Early Thursday morning, Adrian Wojnarowkski reported the Cleveland Cavaliers have a deal in place to acquire Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves in return for Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a first-round pick.
Love had previously been a legitimate free agent target for the Los Angeles Lakers, and with him off the board before even reaching free agency, the fog that has been setting over the Lakers’ future just got thicker.
It seemed to make sense. Love went to UCLA and returns to the area every offseason. He repeatedly mentioned growing up a Laker fan, and people around him said he viewed playing for the Lakers as a dream. The Lakers would do what they could to maintain cap flexibility to entice him to L.A. and pick up whatever assets they could use to surround Love in the process.
So, the Lakers essentially cleared their cap of as many contracts extending beyond last year as best they could and signed short-term deals to ensure as much cap room as possible for max players this offseason. Chances with superstars like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony this offseason were always going to be slim and, as could be predicted, the Lakers came away empty-handed. Fans, however, were still sold on promises of next year’s free agency when Love would be available.
Now, with Love off the board those promises become what, exactly?
Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics will be a free agent, but building around him would be quite the gamble. The Portland Trail Blazers’ LaMarcus Aldridge will be available, but he has already expressed his desire to retire in Rip City. Marc Gasol’s contract with the Memphis Grizzlies ends this season, but based on his brother Pau Gasol’s experience as trade bait the last three years, you think he’s counting down the days for that environment?
So fans will likely hear about the summer of 2016, when all sorts of superstars become free agents. Except, they seem spoken for already as well. LeBron won’t leave Cleveland now that they’ve given him a core of Kyrie Irving and the aforementioned Love. Kevin Durant might be unhappy with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but there are already whispers of his desire to play near his hometown near D.C., making the Washington Wizards favorites in that chase. So, the Lakers will continue to search for free agent/franchise savior X for the foreseeable future.
The problem is, if we’ve learned anything about today’s NBA player, they aren’t signing up for that role unless they absolutely have to (i.e. they’re drafted).
James would still be LeGone unless the Cavs could’ve put this team together. It took James going to Cleveland to convince Love to sign a long-term deal there. Durant’s homecoming would only occur if John Wall and Bradley Beal continue to blossom. Aldridge’s desire to retire in Portland probably stems from playing alongside Damian Lillard and the rest of that young, exciting team.
The Lakers will need to learn – quickly, hopefully – that the only way to entice the superstar free agents they’ve been fawning over the last few years is to show they can win right away upon joining the team. Smaller variables like players’ hometowns and “growing up a fan of the team” sound nice for the naive but do little to actually sway the NBA’s elite.
What this Love trade does for the Lakers is shows that the building process will have to be a long one. They’ll have to build a winner that a superstar would take to the next level. General manager Mitch Kupchak will have to use draft picks and develop those players into something LeBron or Durant would believe they could win with.
Lakers fans will have to be patient. Gone are the days where teams just give their franchise players to the Lakers and when elite talent believed the only way they could achieve career goals was to do so wearing purple and gold. Whether the Lakers’ leadership can adjust quickly enough and their fans can show said patience is something different altogether.