From Kawhi's 'no' to the ring: the miracle of Rondo, Caruso, KCP ...

The Lakers started this project with a sledgehammer: Kawhi chose the Clippers with the market squeezed. But Pelinka built a champion.


On July 5 (the morning of the 6th in Spain), journalist Chris Haynes broke the news on Twitter that the NBA had been waiting for five days: “Free agent Kawhi Leonard is going to sign for the Los Angeles Clippers, as confirmed by various sources to Yahoo Sports ”. Kawhi's move was the key, in theory, to deciphering the 2019-20 season. The Raptors, the champion he orphaned, and the two Los Angeles teams awaited his response; the Clippers, who had pinned their hopes on turning their battered history around, and the Lakers. They had tied Anthony Davis via trade and dreamed of reuniting an invincible big three: LeBron James-Kawhi Leonard-Anthony Davis.

But Kawhi, who wanted to play in his native California and had little interest in living in LeBron's shadow, chose a few Clippers who, to secure his signature, had to mortgage in a prohibitive trade with the Thunder to take Paul George. Kawhi's decision seemed especially tough for the Lakers. For the refusal and because it came five days after the market opened. Plan A was Kawhi and Plan B had vanished while other top players secured their contracts elsewhere. Was there plan C? The Lakers suddenly had the more than 30 million they had reserved for Kawhi (he charges 33 this year at the Clippers), but did they have what to invest it in? Many thought that Kawhi's delay (some even suggested that he had acted that way precisely for that reason) completely dislodged the Lakers and raised the Clippers as a super favorite.

Y, however, the 2019 NBA champion is the Los Angeles Lakers. A team that the previous season, the first with LeBron, had signed a tremendous fiasco and had been without a playoffs for the sixth consecutive year. That he had had to manage Magic Johnson's histrionic goodbye and what looked like a powder keg in the offices. And that he only kept six players for the new season, almost all signed after Kawhi's rejection. At that time, on July 6, the Lakers had no team or, apparently, no course. And there emerged Rob Pelinka, the head of the offices without Magic Johnson.

The highest contract in that plan C (which ended up being C champion) went to Danny Green. The guard was a winner, an excellent defender and a great shooter (the latter has not been so much this season) that he seemed a perfect complement to LeBron and Davis. He took 14.6 million of that bite that Kawhi released and a total contract of 30, including the next season. A lot of money but an overspending necessary to guarantee the patience of Green, a 33-year-old secondary who was loved by the Mavericks and who waited until he saw what Kawhi, who was his partner in Spurs and Raptors, did. The second-strongest contract (8 million this season, an 8.4 player option next) went to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. A player who had been in the franchise for two years and with an irregular performance but whom LeBron (they share an agent) looked favorably on and who offered, like Green, back work and shooting. KCP has played an excellent season, he has been the team's third best player for many nights and had his moment of glory in the fourth game of the Final, when he scored five points in 56 seconds to secure a very sweaty 3-1.

The Lakers knew the kind of team they wanted to build around their two superstars, and they were acting accordingly. Even if they had to make a block in which the third best player was not even in the top 50 of the current NBA.

The decisive value of small contracts

With the valuable margin of the mid level exception, the Lakers continued to complete the roster: 9.7 million two years (4.7 this season) for Avery Bradley, a defensive bulldog who also scored on the outside and a player who went from a brilliant progression in the Celtics to stagnation (Pistons, Clippers, Grizzlies) attacked by, in addition, injuries. In Memphis, however, he played at a good level, and in his start with the Lakers he went further, vital in defense as a blotter for the opponent's best outside player and with sufficiently fine-tuned aim. Bradley, however, has not played in the bubble as he resigned because he has a six-year-old son with serious respiratory problems. An important loss that has not finally been noticed on the way to the title and a player who will be very useful again next season, with a contract that is also very manageable.

DeMarcus Cousins took home $ 3.5 million to see how he was doing after an injury-plagued stint, including his only year with the Warriors. Before a star, he was going to meet up with a Davis he played with in the Pelicans (with good chemistry until he suffered a serious Achilles tendon injury) and pointed to a possible X factor in these new and inscrutable Lakers. But in preseason, before making his debut with the team, he suffered a serious knee injury. There would be no Cousins effect. The Lakers invested 4 million in recovering JaVale McGee and 3 in Quinn Cook, alternate point guard for the Warriors of Steve Kerr. The latter has not had space in the playoff rotation and McGee, a starter for most of the season, left the group in the last three series for the title. Due to adjustments based on the rival or due to his own gaps, he was not part of the rotation against Rockets, Nuggets and Heat.

So the Lakers didn't scratch too much at that level either, beyond a Bradley who wasn't at Disney World. The true miracle, one of the keys to the title, was from there, in the minor contracts: 2.75 million Caruso (the same that he will charge next season), and minimum veteran contracts (2.56 million) for Rajon Rondo (player option next season) and a Dwight Howard who arrived with no guaranteed contract to replace Cousins. Also receiving that salary were Troy Daniels (a shooter who ended up with the Nuggets) and Jared Dudley, a useful veteran presence in the locker room but no input on the court. Finally, in the winter market, Markieff Morris arrived after a buyout and for 1.75 million for the rest of the season. And then two players who have failed to get into the rotation landed: the wayward Dion Waiters ($ 503,000) and the veteran JR Smith ($ 289,000), who has had testimonial minutes. To that we must add that, within his rookie contract, Kyle Kuzma only earns 1.9 million this season.

So the Lakers got four players who have been essential in the playoffs (Rondo, Howard, Morris and Caruso's new contract) for 9.62 million, a total salary of the four that is below what they have received 129 NBA players this season. If he joins Kuzma, another important member of the rotation, they are 11.5 million for five momentous pieces of the team that has been proclaimed champion. A masterstroke from Pelinka and an excellent integration and resource utilization exercise from coach Frank Vogel.

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