Despite their current four-game losing streak, the Los Angeles Lakers have proven they are one of the best teams in the league and a clear championship contender.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis might be the most dominant duo in the league and general manager Rob Pelinka spent the summer surrounding them with role players that would ideally be able to maximize their talents.
That said, just over a third of the way into the 2019-20 NBA season, it’s clear their roster is still lacking in a few key areas. Despite the presence of guards like Rajon Rondo, Quinn Cook, and Alex Caruso, the offense still grinds to a halt when James is not on the floor, dropping from an Offensive Rating of 112.7 with him to 102.0 without.
For context, an Offensive Rating of 102.0 would be the worst in the NBA by a decent margin with the Chicago Bulls currently posting a league-worst 103.5. A score-first point guard who has some chops running an offense would go a long way towards fixing the problem. They need to find a way to manufacture points when James is off the floor, so a true scoring threat has to be a priority.
Furthermore, when the team was constructed, it was clear they were lacking in wing players. James is the only true small forward on the roster with Kyle Kuzma, Danny Green, and the rarely-used Jared Dudley able to provide some minutes there to varying degrees of effectiveness. That’s an issue when the Lakers run up against bigger, stronger wing players like Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, and more.
Opponents know this and take advantage, pummeling Lakers guards who are forced to moonlight as wings like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The Clippers exploited their defending forwards with guards in the first game of the season and it’s a problem that head coach Frank Vogel hasn’t been able to scheme around. The Lakers need to find one — if not two — versatile wing defenders, and preferably sooner rather than later.
Which is where things get tricky.
This summer, the Lakers will have some options to enhance their roster, including trading their first round pick on 2020 NBA Draft night and signing players in free agency using an exception (assuming Davis sticks around). During the season, however, their options are extremely limited.
Due to the NBA’s rule forbidding teams from trading consecutive future first round draft picks, the Lakers are unable to offer their 2020 selection since the Pelicans could get Los Angeles’ 2021 first, even though it appears unlikely (New Orleans gets the 2021 first round pick if it falls between No. 1-7). Since the Pelicans could get that pick, the Lakers must have a 2020 first round pick though after the pick is made in June, they can trade it.
The Lakers have also traded away their next three second round picks.
Complicating the team’s trade possibilities further is the fact that Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee, and Rajon Rondo all can veto any trade since they are on one-year deals with a player option for a second year. Caldwell-Pope is in his third season with the Lakers while McGee and Rondo are on their second, which means the Lakers have the ability to use Bird Rights to exceed the salary cap and retain them this summer if they opt to become free agents.
However, because they are technically on one-year deals, they would lose their Bird Rights if traded, which could be a blow to their ability to sign a new deal next summer. With that being the case, the NBA allows players in that situation to nullify a trade if they choose.
With salaries playing an important role in constructing trades, potentially not being able to trade McGee, Rondo, and Caldwell-Pope in addition to not having any first round picks available or even near-term second round picks will make Pelinka’s efforts on the trade market difficult.
While Pelinka is rumored to want to upgrade the team and additions are needed, the Lakers may have to resort to the buyout market to find the help that they need. That doesn’t mean they can’t find help, but the pickings can be slim when searching for cast-offs from other teams.
Typically, players who are bought out fit three criteria: veteran players who have expiring contracts and play for bad teams. By coming to a buyout agreement, the team saves some money and the player is then free to sign with a contending team.
For example, Dwight Howard gave the Memphis Grizzlies $2.6 million off his contract in his buyout this past summer. He will make the money back since the Lakers are paying him $2.6 million, but it’s currently non-guaranteed. It’s a win-win-win for the player, their current team, and new team since the player gets to go to a contender, the current team saves money, and the new team picks up a useful piece without having to use assets.
That said, teams would generally prefer to trade a player rather than buy them out since that could return assets beyond just financial savings. Due to this, buyouts tend to occur after the trade deadline (which will be on Feb. 6 this season) and players have to be waived prior to March to be eligible to participate in the NBA playoffs with their new team.
While there are a number of interesting players that would fit the bill — including the oft-mentioned Andre Iguodala as well as Marcus Morris, Jeff Teague, Allen Crabbe, and more — the Lakers may have to get by for a few more months without a needed addition.