Despite all the predictions that the 2018 NBA trade deadline would be a quiet one for the Los Angeles Lakers, the team kick-started a deluge of activity around the league when they sent Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and a protected 2018 first-round pick.
The deal makes sense for both sides. When rumors that the Lakers would sign LeBron James were at their peak, Nance always appeared like he would be the Lakers player most set to benefit from the acquisition.
His talents as a low-usage offensive player who mostly just cuts and screens will be far better utilized in James’ orbit in Cleveland than was ever possible for him on the Lakers’ roster.
Clarkson will fill the role the Cavaliers were probably expecting for Isaiah Thomas, giving Cleveland instant scoring every time he checks in. As Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN pointed out, Clarkson (270) ranks first in the NBA in points off the bench in 2018, and second in the entire league over the course of the season (732), trailing only his former reserve backcourt mate Lou Williams (813).
The Lakers will miss Clarkson, especially the way he was playing recently. The player tied with Julius Randle for longest current Lakers tenure before he was dealt made the team better whenever he saw the floor, as they were only outscored by less than a point (-0.9 net rating) per 100 possession with Clarkson on the floor. When Clarkson sat, the Lakers’ net rating fell to -4.3, the biggest swing on the entire team.
But while the Lakers will miss Clarkson’s instant offense, the team is probably hoping that Thomas can replicate some of that, even if in 15 games so far with Cleveland he’s been far from the MVP candidate he was with the Boston Celtics last season.
Thomas’ averages of 14.7 points, 4.5 assists and 2.1 rebounds with the Cavaliers don’t look terrible. But he’s shooting just 36.1 percent from the field and 25.3 percent from 3-point range as he recovers from offseason hip surgery. For context, that’s only marginally better field-goal efficiency than Lonzo Ball, who has been criticized all year for his 35.6 percent shooting.
Further painting a picture of just how bad Thomas has been for the Cavaliers so far this season are his moribund on-off ratings. Among players to suit up in more than four games, the Cavaliers’ net rating was never worse than when Thomas was on the floor (-15.1), while the team outscored opponents when Thomas sat (2.2).
Lakers head coach Luke Walton sounded hopeful that would shift, adding that he plans to play Ball and Thomas alongside each other and that the team does not plan to buy Thomas out of the final year of his contract.
And while some were quick to worry over Thomas’ role with the Lakers, in a vacuum he actually fits relatively well alongside Ball, who can guard bigger players while Thomas gives him an opportunity to run off of screens and play off-ball a little bit more, allowing Ball easier opportunities for open looks.
All of that requires Thomas, who has publicly bristled about his role with multiple teams when not given the car keys and told it’s his team, to buy in with the Lakers, something that isn’t a guarantee.
However, Thomas is a free agent and probably doesn’t want to fuel perception that he’s blown up two locker rooms in a single season, and so it would make sense for him to be on his best behavior that may not be off to the best start.
Still, that impending free agency is also why this deal is a good move for the Lakers. Thomas and Frye’s expiring deals allow the Lakers to clear up to $69 million in cap space this summer should they choose to move on from both and decide to try and make a splash this offseason rather than staying quiet.
To get a draft pick that will fall in the back half of the first round for their trouble, and for players in Clarkson (his long-term contract) and Nance (the existence of Julius Randle and Kyle Kuzma) who didn’t appear to factor into their future plans for varying reasons is a coup for the Lakers’ front office.
As for Frye and the afformentioned pick, the former (a career 38.7 percent 3-point shooter who is knocking down a 33.3 percent this season) might help the Lakers’ spacing while hurting their defense. The latter could be another gem in the mold of Kuzma or Josh Hart in the hands of L.A.’s draft-savvy front office.
The only real worry with this trade is how it impacts the Lakers’ chemistry and defense down the stretch. Frye is a beloved locker room presence and how Thomas is once he gets to L.A. remains to be seen, but both will hurt a Lakers defense every time they’re on the floor.
For a team that’s most succeeded on what currently ranks as the 11th-best defense in the league, that could hurt the Lakers’ record down the stretch and impact the way 2018 free agents view the team.
Nonetheless, it’s hard not to view how much cap space the Lakers cleared while getting a first-rounder back as a huge win for Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka at their first trade deadline together.
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