The Los Angeles Lakers have enjoyed a productive January, winning six straight home games and seven of their last nine contests overall. It may seem like modest progress, but it is the best stretch of winning that the team has experienced in five years.
Still, all eyes are on the NBA trade deadline which is a mere two weeks away. The actions taken by the Lakers’ front office in the next couple of weeks will have major implications for how the team finishes the season and enters free agency this summer.
For the past year, there has been intense speculation that the team plans to unload Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle in effort to clear cap space to sign two max-free agents.
However, one cannot help but notice that Clarkson and Randle are largely responsible for the Lakers’ current winning streak, and it is hard to imagine how the team will fare in trying to finish the season without them.
If the team limps to the end of the season without Randle’s muscle inside and Clarkson’s scoring off the bench, how will that help attract free agents in July? The opposite could be true.
Indeed, just as the team has started to win games and everyone is seeing a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for the first time in a long time, it would be deflating to unload two such important pieces as Clarkson and Randle, not to mention Larry Nance Jr., who is likewise playing very well but also rumored to be on the trading block.
Those who are expecting the Lakers to trade Clarkson, Randle and/or Nance may be disappointed. For a variety of reasons, the team will not fetch fair value for these good young players at the trade deadline and thus should not part with any of them during the season.
They, along with Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart, are the soul of the team and the hope for a better tomorrow. The Lakers have four years invested in the growth of Randle and Clarkson, and three years invested in Nance.
Until the front office has a clear understanding that they can be replaced in July by top free agents, none of them should be traded. Moreover, the team would be even stronger if they could find a way to add free agents without parting with any good young talent.
This does not mean that the Lakers will absolutely stand pat at the trade deadline. If a move is to be made – which is not imperative – the players they could look to unload are Kentavious Caldwell Pope and Brook Lopez, especially if anything can be obtained for them in return.
Neither has met expectations, and the team will not be seriously impacted if they fail to finish the year with the Lakers.
Lopez was acquired for one purpose in particular, to space the floor by knocking down 3-point shots. Much was written about how he made 35 percent of his attempts from deep last season after rarely shooting from outside in the first eight years of his career.
The Lakers were hoping that his percentage would continue to rise, creating more room under the basket for Randle and Nance. It has not happened.
Lopez’s statistics have dropped dramatically this season in virtually every category compared with his career averages. He is making only 31 percent of his 3-point shots and 43 percent of his attempts overall, down from 50 percent last year.
Lopez has even lost the ability to make free throws. He averages 79 percent for his career but is making only 71 percent this season. If one were to consider the past six weeks only, his percentage would be much lower.
It was painful watching Lopez shoot back-to-back air-balls from the free throw line in a recent game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. It would not be so bad if Lopez made up for poor shooting with his rebounding and rim protection, but that has not worked out either.
He is averaging only 3.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game, both career lows. Perhaps most important, following in the tradition of Roy Hibbert and Timofey Mozgov, Lopez is the latest in a line of Lakers’ centers who are very slow afoot.
He does not fit with the accelerated pace at which the Lakers play best, which is why the team goes with Randle or Nance at center for much of each game.
If one could fairly characterize Lopez’s stint with the team as a semi-bust, the same cannot be said for Caldwell-Pope. He has well, but not well enough, which is why he is expendable.
Caldwell-Pope’s statistics this season are consistent with how he performed last year as a member of the Detroit Pistons. He is averaging 13.5 points per game on 41 percent shooting from the field and 35 percent from deep.
Like everyone else on the roster, Caldwell-Pope’s free-throw shooting percentage has gone down from 83 percent last season to 75 percent, which is second on the team to Clarkson.
Since the start of the season, Caldwell-Pope has been in and out of the lineup due to his off-the-court legal problems and most recently because of an injury. When he is absent, his place in the is usually taken by Josh Hart.
Hart, who began the season slowly due to injuries he suffered in Summer League and in preseason, has gotten better and better. Hart’s defense has been as advertised, which means if he is not quite as good as Caldwell-Pope on that end, he is close.
Speaking of defense, Caldwell-Pope is good but not as good as the team may have hoped. He has had some solid moments but has also been torched at times by some of the league’s better guards.
In the end, Caldwell-Pope is not the team’s shooting guard of the future.
Hart has done better than expected on offense, shooting nearly 44 percent overall and 36 percent from 3-point range, which are solid statistics for a rookie. He is good but not good enough, especially on offense.
The Lakers need a 20 to 25 points-per-game scorer at that position, someone who can be the closer in tight games and also plays solid defense. In a nutshell, the team needs Paul George at that position (he can play the 2 or the 3), who would fill all these needs quite well.
The Lakers front office did well in bringing in Lopez and Caldwell-Pope on short-term fixes. It was a good attempt, but at this point of the season it is clear that for various reasons neither would be ideal to return next year.
If they finish the season with the Lakers that would be fine, but if they can be moved at the trade deadline, the team will at least get something for them in return.
It would also open up more playing time for Hart, Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant, which would be a positive. Zubac and Bryant have not gotten any meaningful minutes all year.
The Lakers are still searching for their center of the future, and if they cannot one such as DeMarcus Cousins this summer, it is very important to give Zubac and Bryant valuable playing time in order to assess if either can fill that role.
That can only be done by seeing them play in a real NBA game.
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