The Los Angeles Lakers are continuing to limp towards the All Star break. Despite early optimism, the team has shown no sustained growth or development this season. Injuries have played an important role, but equally important, the roster simply does not contain enough talent to compete on a consistent basis with most other NBA teams.
The Lakers will have another opportunity to upgrade their roster in the next two weeks, as the trade deadline will expire on February 23 just as the team is returning from the All Star break. General Manager Mitch Kupchak has warned fans not to expect any trades, but that is the wrong attitude. The team has lots of issues, the young core is not developing as quickly as some had hoped, so the front office must carefully pursue all options, whether or not anything materializes.
According to new advisor Magic Johnson, the Lakers are one superstar away from competing for a title. That may be an exaggeration, but everyone agrees the Lakers need superstars to make the playoffs and go on from there. Rarely is anyone of this stature dealt at the trade deadline, but the usual rumors have surfaced again this year. The most prominent names mentioned are All Star Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls; the enigmatic DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings; the talented Goran Dragic of the Miami Heat and Paul George of the Indiana Pacers.
It seems unlikely that any of these players will be moved this month, but if by some chance Butler and George are available, the Lakers should make a serious attempt to acquire one of them. The team is in desperate need of a young shooting guard who is a big time scorer and can play defense. Butler and George would be an ideal fit, but if their teams part with them at all, it would probably take three Laker players, including two members of the young core, to make it happen.
A second option would come at a cheaper price: To trade for another young player with potential but who may not be getting a lot of playing time at present. There is recent precedent for this approach.
During the 2011-12 season, the Lakers picked up Ramon Sessions and jettisoned Derek Fisher at the trade deadline. At the time, they thought Sessions had the potential to be their point guard of the future, but he shocked the team when he declined a player option at the end of the season to sign instead with the then-lowly Charlotte Hornets.
At the deadline during the 2013-14 season, the Lakers shipped veteran Steve Blake to the Golden State Warriors in return for little known Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks. The Lakers wish they had Bazemore
today, but they foolishly let him walk at the end of his one year with the team.
Young players who may be available at the deadline include Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor of the Philadelphia 76ers, Brandon Knight of the Phoenix Suns, and Stanley Johnson of the Detroit Pistons.
Knight and Johnson have already had strong games against the Lakers this season, and any or all would be a welcome addition to the Lakers young core. In short, maybe the Lakers can pick up another Bazemore, a young player with talent and potential who is languishing at the end of the bench on a very deep team.
In an era in which the Lakers have little or no chance of attracting big time free agents next summer, the draft has taken on greater significance. As everyone knows, the team may or may not retain their first round choice depending on how they finish the rest of the year, so it would be advantageous if they could make a trade to acquire another draft choice or two, especially if a first round selection is available.
The question remains, however, will the Lakers be a participant or a spectator at the trade deadline this season? If they are a participant, will they pursue draft choices or players? Finally, the most intriguing question is, if they decide to trade, with whom are they willing to part ways from their current roster?
The Lakers “young core” consists of seven players – D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, Jr., Ivica Zubac, and Tarik Black. Unfortunately, other than Zubac and Black, the key members of this group have not improved much (or at all) since the season began. They have been wildly inconsistent, which is a big reason why the team is near the bottom of the standings.
For all their issues, Russell, Randle and Ingram are untouchable at this point unless the team can part with one of them and end up with a star like Butler or George. Russell reminded everyone of his potential with some good recent games. The rookie Ingram has shown considerable all-around talent despite his awful outside shooting, and Randle has highly unusual physical tools that cannot be ignored but need to be further nurtured.
Surprisingly, Zubac, although young and inexperienced, is probably untouchable at this point too. In the last two weeks, when he finally got a chance to play, he showed considerable skill on both ends of the court. He seems to get better with every game, and big men with his versatility and array of offensive weapons are very rare. Black is a role player who could be a piece of a package but by himself has little trade value.
That leaves Clarkson and Nance, neither of whom is likely to be traded. However, if the Lakers want to pursue a star player who is currently on another team, it is no longer inconceivable that Clarkson and/or Nance could be included as part of a package. Clarkson’s stock seems to have dropped, as he has not improved much from two years ago when he was one of the NBA’s best rookies. Nance is a solid defender, and a couple of times a year he will thrill the crowd with a high flying dunk, but he is timid on offense and has proven to be injury prone.
To be clear, it is very unlikely that either Clarkson or Nance will be traded. However, they do have some trade value. The question is, if, in exchange for one or even both of these players, the Lakers could get a first round draft choice or a sharp shooting “2” guard like 27 year old Jimmy Butler or 25 year old Brandon Knight, who is the odd man out in a very crowded Phoenix Suns’ backcourt, wouldn’t it be worth discussing?
If the team could, hypothetically, add either Butler or Knight to a starting rotation of Russell at point guard, Ingram at small forward, Randle at power forward, and Zubac at center, the future would start to look brighter.
Of course, if a trade is made, it is much more likely to involve a veteran on the Lakers’ roster. Although fans would like to see the team rid itself of the Mozgov and Deng contracts, there would probably be no takers. It is much more likely that any trade would involve Lou Williams or Nick Young.
Both are having career years, and playoff teams could use their big time scoring off the bench. The Lakers may end the season with two or three fewer wins if Williams and/or Young are traded, but it would force the coaching staff to give even more minutes to the younger players which in the long run would probably be for the best.
Another factor that makes Williams and Young attractive as potential trade assets is their contracts. Williams has one more year on his deal at only $7 million while Young has a player option after this season that would be worth $5.6 million should he choose to exercise it.
Young is in the middle of a season that has been astonishing in many ways, but he may be tainted in the minds of many teams who do not want the potential distraction of introducing the “Swaggy P” persona into their locker rooms.
Williams, however, is a different story. He is a solid, respected professional, and a pure scorer off the bench who would not be intimidated playing on a team making a deep playoff run. He has carried the Lakers most nights since the season started and is probably in the midst of his best season in a long, successful career. As was the case with Steve Blake a few seasons ago, it is unclear why Williams would want to remain on a team with no playoff prospects, that is just starting to rebuild from the ground up.
Aside from the top young players, Williams is the most marketable member of the Lakers’ roster. The team may be willing to trade him if they could get a first round draft choice in return. If the Lakers want to be bolder, and there is a star player out there most likely at the shooting guard position, who might really move the team’s meter in the right direction, they could try to package Williams with either Clarkson or Nance, or both, to make it happen.
There is always a great deal of excitement in the weeks leading up to the trade deadline, followed by the let-down when it turns out to be idle speculation only. This season is likely to be no different, so fans should not expect the Lakers to make any moves at all.
Still, the Lakers would be wise to dig deep and look carefully at all the alternatives, as they could use a wing defender and a young shooter, ball handler, and facilitator, preferably someone who can start at shooting guard and provide consistent scoring.