Can LeBron James Win a Title for Lakers Without a Superteam?

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Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James laughs as he waits to check in to the team's NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets during the second half Friday, March 29, 2019, in Los Angeles. The Lakers won 129-115. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

“Superteam” is not an objective concept around the NBA. Its definition varies by situation and opinion.

Do two stars count as a superteam? What about one plus an absurd amount of fringe-star depth? Is three stars the minimum? Or did the Golden State Warriors numb us to the it-takes-a-trio model and make it so superteams now need four?

Three stars feels like the baseline. One-two punches are commonplace. Cobbling together four max-level players is almost impossible without capitalizing on a perfect storm of circumstances: salary-cap spikes, rookie-scale contracts, below-market deals, etc.

Superstar trios remain the conventional dream. And it is by that model LeBron James has won his three titles. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade flanked him in Miami, while Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love joined him in Cleveland.

Even the Los Angeles Lakers have subscribed to this three-star format since signing James. After giving up the moon for Anthony Davis, they jumped through the necessary hoops to pursue another big name. They swung and missed on Kawhi Leonard, but the importance of bagging that third star shone in their willingness to wait out a decision.

Somewhat lost amid the Lakers’ failed coup is a sobering possibility: This was probably their last chance to build a superteam with LeBron in tow. If they’re going to win a championship before he leaves or retires, they’ll likely have to do so without a Big Three.

That is neither a potshot at the Lakers’ offseason nor a doomsday scenario. The Toronto Raptors just hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy with one, maybe two superstars on the docket, depending on your view of Kyle Lowry. Amassing All-NBA cornerstones remains the most efficient path to a title, but high-end role players and overall depth can have a similar impact.

Still, the absence of a third star in Los Angeles matters, if only because the Lakers themselves have nodded to its significance.

“It gives us the ability to not only contend in the short term with the players we wanted but also add a superstar or max player in that July of 2021,” general manager Rob Pelinka said of the team’s offseason, per the Los Angeles TimesTania Ganguli. “If that’s something we want to look to do.”

Getting that max player in 2021 will be difficult unless the Lakers are planning to move on from James, who holds a player option that summer.

They have just three guaranteed salaries on the books, but LeBron, Davis’ projected cap hit if he re-signs and Luol Deng‘s dead money would total $83.9 million on their own. That’s assuming James doesn’t opt out. He’d count against the ledger for slightly more on the open market if they carry his cap hold.

Factor in empty roster charges, and they’d be looking at around $94.2 million against a $125 million cap. That $30.8 million in space wouldn’t even be enough to bankroll the smallest max with a starting salary worth 25 percent of the cap ($31.3 million). A first-year max for the next tier up (aka Giannis Antetokounmpo) will run $37.5 million.

The ship may have sailed on the Lakers adding a third star to the LeBron-AD duo.

The ship may have sailed on the Lakers adding a third star to the LeBron-AD duo.Adam Pantozzi/Getty Images

This says nothing of the collateral damage it’d cost to open up that flexibility. Both Kyle Kuzma and Talen Horton-Tucker will be restricted free agents in 2021, and they wouldn’t be able to sign any longer-term deals between now and then. That includes their 2020 first-round pick.

Projections can change. James will be gearing up for his age-37 season in 2021. Perhaps he’ll be willing to sign at noticeably less than the max. At the same time, maybe not. He’s LeBron James. Plus, by that point, the over-38 rule comes into play. It’ll be difficult for him to concede short-term gains in exchange for a big-picture windfall.

Trading for a third star is pretty much off the table. The Lakers will have some interesting salary filler after Dec. 15, but their only real blockbuster anchors are Kuzma and Horton-Tucker. Short of entering the Chris Paul sweepstakes with four- or five-for-one packages at midseason, they don’t have the assets to pursue a seismic splash.

Developing a star in-house is similarly out of the question. The Lakers don’t have the picks or the gradual timeline to groom youngsters. Kuzma is about their only hope, and he’s more than a singular leap away from exploring stardom. As Bleacher R