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Lakers appear to be big winners in Kawhi Leonard situation, but nothing is guaranteed

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

As dawn and the latest NBA trade news broke over Los Angeles on Wednesday, the Lakers’ brass had to wipe sleep from their eyes and wonder if this dream was true. It suddenly stood to reason that they might (eventually) be the big winner of the second-biggest transaction of the summer despite not being an involved party.

The San Antonio Spurs agreed to ship Kawhi Leonard (and Danny Green) to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected first-round pick in 2019. At one point, the Lakers were the Spurs’ most likely, and most eager, trading partner. Leonard has just one year left on his contract and made no secret of his desire, as a product of Riverside County just east of L.A., to get home as soon as possible.

The Spurs wanted a king’s ransom for Leonard, though, and were hesitant to ship him to a conference rival in the first place. A deal with the Lakers couldn’t be reached.

Now Leonard is off to Toronto, where he reportedly has no interest in going. In less than a year, though, he’ll be free to pick his next destination. Barring Kawhi suddenly becoming enamored with living in Canada and playing for the Raptors, the Lakers are in the driver’s seat to bring him back, pair him with LeBron James and go after the Golden State Warriors in 2019-20 and beyond.

No, this isn’t as immediate as trotting James and Leonard out on opening day this season, a truly revamped Lakers team of sudden intrigue. This is a heck of a consolation prize, though, especially if they pull this off and don’t have to part with any of their young assets to get Kawhi in purple and gold.

Kawhi Leonard reportedly doesn’t want any part of Toronto. (AP)

They can use those to get other pieces.

Of course, that’s IF. IF, if … if.

Just one year ago the Lakers were believed to be the favorite to get Palmdale, California, native Paul George in free agency this summer. George had said he wanted to return to Southern California. George was supposedly locked in on the Lakers. George would be a nice complement to LeBron, if/when he came. It was all lying there.

Then George got sent from Indiana to Oklahoma City. The Thunder got knocked out in the first round. It all looked to be breaking the Lakers’ way … only to have George stay with the Thunder, choosing Oklahoma over L.A. Money talks and the Thunder could offer more of it. George learned to like OKC and playing with Russell Westbrook. The Lakers’ plan went up in smoke.

Could this one? Of course. Kawhi isn’t the most effusive (at least publicly) in the league, so knowing exactly what he values isn’t easy.

Know this, though: If he comes and plays to his potential, the Raptors, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference this past season, are legit contenders to get through the now LeBron-less side of the bracket and into the NBA Finals. Boston and Philadelphia are rising, but this is a wide-open conference. Does that kind of success, a Finals run, change opinions and loyalties? It might.

Then there is Toronto. Yes, it gets cold. Yes, winters are dark and rough. For a guy who grew up in L.A., played college ball at San Diego State and spent his career thus far in South Texas, that may be too much to overcome. It is a heck of a city, though, large and cosmopolitan with a rabid fan base. It’s a chance to represent an entire country. You never know.

L.A. will take its chances. The Lakers will also take a season of essentially wasting James’ prime. At 33, there is no question the Lakers would have preferred building out a contending roster immediately. With Golden State up the road, however, that may have been impossible.

Now this season is shaping up to be LeBron, some retreads and a lot of kids, with the anticipated soap opera involving Lonzo/LaVar Ball as the top storyline. James’ eight-year streak of Finals appearances looks to be over.

In another year though, then it gets interesting.

The sun will still shine in Los Angeles, and no one and nothing can stop Kawhi Leonard from following it back home and trying to push the Lakers to another championship.

If he chooses, of course. If he doesn’t find comfort in Canada. IF, if … if.

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