How Long Can LeBron and the Lakers Wait for the Star-Hunting to Begin?

James has preached patience before, only to hit fast-forward earlier than expected. Will the Los Angeles hold its chips and wait to pursue the likes of Kevin Durant next summer? Or should it make a play for someone like Damian Lillard ASAP?

We all know that the Lakers team that takes the floor to start the 2019-20 NBA season will look different from the one that tips off in Portland on Thursday. And if that’s the case—if this roster is just a placeholder—then what’s to stop James, Johnson, Pelinka, and Buss from deciding to accelerate the pace of change midstream with the kind of move that might bump up the hoped-for contention timetable by a season?

Players on rookie contracts account for more than half the Lakers’ roster, including several—Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart—who have already showcased skills and traits that have established them as persons of interest in the NBA world. The Lakers own nearly all of their draft picks moving forward, owing only a 2019 second-rounder shipped out in the long, long ago of The Days You Would Trade for Roy Hibbert. James has the only significant deal on their books beyond this season. It is a roster constructed to be deconstructed. There’s no rule that says the project has to resume next summer; the Lakers don’t have to get any permits if they see the chance to move the needle.

Let’s say the chance for significant improvement, both now and for years to come, presents itself before July. Say, for example, the Lakers’ Thursday hosts falter enough in the season’s early months to convince them it’s time to get their Kevin O’Connor on by offering the sort of proposal floated by our own Bill Simmons during a recent podcast, and by ESPN’s Zach Lowe in a recent column: a trade that would send Ball (and perhaps Caldwell-Pope) to Portland in exchange for All-Star point guard Damian Lillard. Such a deal would give James a central-casting, tailor-made running buddy as he takes aim at the best in the West: a hard-nosed, 3-point-bombing, on- and off-ball playmaker with an established résumé in the clutch; a reputed leader whose game and comportment James reportedly respects; and a 28-year-old, three-time All-Star in his prime whose contract runs through the 2020-21 season, dovetailing with the expected LeBron-era window for contention.

If that opportunity, or another like it—to land a real difference-maker who could nudge those vanishingly small odds north in a meaningful way, in the middle, at the point, or elsewhere—finds its way onto the table, will the Lakers keep their powder dry and stick to the script? Or will a franchise long committed to the principle that megawatt stars matter more than anything else—one now led by a tentpole talent still, somehow, at the peak of his powers and in championship pursuit—strike while the iron’s hot?

“I’m going to be as patient as I can be,” James told Haynes. “I know I got a young squad, but these guys are willing to learn and I’m willing to learn with them.”

We’ll start to find out Thursday how much more patient James is now than he was in 2014, and whether he’s willing to ride a learning curve rather than trying to bend it into a sharply rising arrow.