Luck is the common denominator binding all NBA champions. Yes, it happens at the superstar level, as the Golden State Warriors could afford Kevin Durant only because of a cap spike and a few ankle injuries that artificially deflated Stephen Curry’s salary, but really, luck becomes more powerful the lower the investment. The Spurs lucked into Boris Diaw because he gained weight in Charlotte. The 2011 Mavericks landed Peja Stojakovic after the Hornets traded him and the Raptors cut him. The list goes on and on. Nearly every championship team manages to somehow acquire a player who manages to vastly overperform his expectations through nothing more than good fortune. Winning a championship means catching the right breaks.
LeBron James knows this well. He wouldn’t have won his 2016 championship had the New York Knicks not desperately wanted to dump the contract of J.R. Smith. His 2013 championship relied on the Boston Celtics benching and alienating Ray Allen, and to a lesser extent, the NBA suspending Chris Andersen for several years due to drug problems. In all three cases, James’ teams managed to acquire a starting-caliber player despite lacking the trade assets or cap space to do so by traditional means. It took outside circumstances to make those acquisitions possible, the sort of circumstances that just weren’t aligning for the 2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers.
If anything, Kawhi Leonard seemingly took steps to ensure that they wouldn’t. By holding the Lakers hostage until July 6, he managed to significantly devalue the cap space with which they needed to build their roster by allowing almost every other impact free agent to sign while he kept them waiting. The Lakers made the best of a bad situation, and the combination of James and Anthony Davis has been more than effective enough to make it work, but if Leonard was trying to weaken his chief competitor by delaying his decision, the plan seemed to have worked. The Clippers are, after all, 2-0 against the Lakers in two relatively close games. In both, they were seemingly one player short.
Darren Collison could be that player. He is, on paper, a nearly perfect fit for this team. Though not initially an elite 3-point shooter, he grew into one later in his career. He led the league by shooting nearly 47 percent from behind the arc during the 2017-18 season, and remained above 40 percent last season. He is not a reckless shooter though, as his volume has remained relatively low. That is by design. Last season, nearly 58 percent of his long-range attempts were defined as wide open by NBA.com. Wide-open shots are plentiful when playing alongside Davis and James.
He is not the traditional point guard-sized human who occupies the position solely to feast on the 3’s LeBron creates, though. His offensive game is far more diverse. The Pacers scored 0.92 points per 100 possessions when he ran pick-and-roll last season, putting him in the 72nd percentile league-wide. He was in the 83rd percentile a year earlier, and both numbers came with inferior spacing to what the Lakers would provide. The Lakers lack a secondary pick-and-roll threat beyond James offensively. No guard on their roster is even in the 50th percentile this season.
Collison is even a moderately effective defender. At 6-0 flat, he is too short to hold up on switches, but is more than fast enough to stay in front of just about anyone and largely stays within the scheme rather than gambling for big plays. For a Lakers team that focuses on conservative closeouts and trying to funnel shots into their rim-protectors, that is a valuable defender. Add all of this up and Collison is more than just the potential missing piece for the Lakers. He is a nearly ideal fit for them in almost every way.
But more than being the player that they need, Collison is the break that the Lakers need. Had he entered free agency with the intention of playing this season, Collison would have signed with someone on June 30 as their presumptive starting point guard. Even if he had waited until their pursuit of Leonard petered out, he still would have demanded a nine-figure contract from the Lakers that would have crippled their depth. Adding a player of Collison’s caliber, under normal circumstances, simply would not have been possible for this team. They lack the assets to get one on the trade market, and lacked the cap space to sign one outright without making devastating compromises elsewhere on their roster.
But Collison isn’t available under normal circumstances. He stunned the league by announcing his retirement days before free agency, and is only now reconsidering that decision, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. His two top choices, should he ultimately decide to return, are the Lakers and the Clippers. That makes sense. Collison grew up in Southern California and attended UCLA. He has also played for both Doc Rivers and Frank Vogel in the past, but with Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams in place, the Clippers don’t have many minutes to offer him.
The Lakers do. They also have a financial advantage over the field. When DeMarcus Cousins tore his ACL over the summer, the Lakers applied for, and received, a $1.5 million Disabled Player Exception. That exception was downright worthless at the time, as the veteran’s minimum is higher than that. But unlike the minimum player salary exception, DPE’s don’t prorate. Most other teams will only be able to offer him a portion of the minimum, and a small one at that if he is committed to waiting until after the trade deadline to find a home as Wojnarowski suggests, while the Lakers will have that entire $1.5 million exception at their disposal.
There are still moving parts at play here. Collison may choose the Clippers, or another team. He might stay retired. He might even choose the Lakers only to be boxed out of minutes by inferior players like Rajon Rondo.
But the Lakers have lacked two things all season long: a capable, two-way starting point guard, and the means to get one. Now, one has seemingly fallen out of the sky, and despite Leonard’s best efforts, the Lakers might just catch the break that they needed to close the gap between themselves and the Clippers.
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