More than halfway through the regular season, the Los Angeles Lakers continue to slog along in last place in the Western Conference. Their priorities are both to celebrate Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour and develop the skill sets of rookies and second-year players.
But there’s also the trade deadline to consider.
It’s unlikely that the front office will try to improve the team’s immediate fortunes. After all, extra wins at this point would only jeopardize L.A.’s chances to retain its top-three-protected draft pick come June.
As for the rest of the league, all but five teams are either firmly in the playoff hunt or within five games of contention. Most potential trade partners are looking to find a competitive edge—not cast-offs.
The Lakers probably aren’t selling what buyers want, and vice versa.
Lack of Assets
For the Lakers, the most appealing assets are young prospects who are integral to the team’s ongoing rebuild.
Appearing on Time Warner Cable SportsNet with Chris McGee in early January, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak spoke about trade strategies and a reluctance to move budding stars.
“Most of the teams that would have interest in our players would have interest in our young players, and we covet our young players pretty highly right now,” Kupchak said. “So it would be tough for us to move a young player.”
Assuming that D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle are off the table, and with the promise also shown by Larry Nance Jr. and Anthony Brown, the stockpile of trade chips is diminished greatly.
At the top of the expendable list is Roy Hibbert, the 7’2” center who was acquired from the Indiana Pacers last summer. Hibbert’s on an expiring deal worth $15.5 million this season, which could be attractive to the few teams not aiming toward the postseason. But his hulking presence doesn’t offer a huge cachet for those looking to improve their standing.
Nick Young brings instant scoring ability to the table, but he hasn’t exactly been showcased as of late, with both minutes and productivity taking a dive in January.
Lou Williams, on the other hand, has averaged 21 points per game as a starter in January. Other teams might be interested, but should the Lakers part ways with the sweet-shooting combo guard?
That leaves an assortment of low-cost role players with relatively limited appeal. Among those who could be offered for modest returns are Brandon Bass (another year left at $3 million) and soon-to-be unrestricted free agents Ryan Kelly and Robert Sacre (respective salaries of $1.7 million and $981,348).
Improving the Defense
Los Angeles has one of the worst defenses in the league, currently giving up 106.5 points per game.
There had been hope that last summer’s trade for Hibbert—which only cost L.A. a future second-round draft pick and the assumption of the center’s salary—would prove to be a deterrent to opposition scoring.
Instead, the 29-year-old is having a lackluster season, with a career-low scoring average and subpar rebounding. His shot-blocking has been somewhat better at a solid if unspectacular 1.6 per game.
The blame can’t be put entirely on the man-mountain. The lack of perimeter trapping results in a parade of opponents romping to the paint, with only Hibs left to guard the cookie jar.
How do you improve the defense without giving up coveted young prospects who haven’t yet developed into consistent ball-stoppers? It will be a difficult task.
Maybe management gets lucky by trading Hibbert’s expiring contract to a non-playoff team that is looking to free up salary-cap space and also willing to part with a player who offers more mobility than the low-post behemoth. That seems like a real long shot.
Another possibility would be trading away an asset for a future second-round draft pick, hoping to ultimately find a future gem that offers something tangible. After all, Brown—with his three-and-D promise—was selected at No. 34 last spring.
As Forum Blue & Gold’s Darius Soriano recently observed, the Lakers “need more players like Anthony Brown,” further pointing out the team’s defensive efficiency improvement with the rookie on the floor.
Dealing a player who’s not in L.A.’s plans in exchange for a low pick and the hopes of a two-way prospect would be a wise deadline move.
A Leadership Vacuum
A major loss of leadership is lurking on the Lakers’ horizon. Bryant, winner of enough accolades to fill a page, will leave a vacuum behind that goes far beyond his incendiary firepower.
Despite any criticisms of ball-hoggery or an infamous tendency to be hard on teammates, Bryant was the undisputed floor leader for a great many years. Forget Scott’s arms-crossed glare or old-school tough love when it comes to benching players. Bryant is the one teammates instinctively look toward, especially those who grew up idolizing him from afar.
The Lakers’ core of young players, headed by Russell, Randle and Clarkson, all have the potential to exert their influence on the court.
Head coach Byron Scott singled out Russell’s potential, per radio host Colin Cowherd of The Herd:
There is also a certain level of influence from veterans such as Williams, who has started 26 games so far this season to Russell’s 22. But it would be a stretch to say that anyone currently on this roster, regardless of age or experience, will fill the leadership gap left by a retiring Mamba.
The trade deadline isn’t likely to present a large inventory of available team leaders who are gettable with the Lakers’ limited assets.
But management will certainly be keeping that elusive quality in mind as it considers potential targets who could help the team over the long run.
Preserving the Salary Cap
With any win-now scenarios clearly off the table, preserving cap space for next summer’s free agency is crucial. That purchasing power will be significant, with RealGM’s Keith P. Smith pointing out that L.A. will lead the league with up to $62.6 million in cap room for the 2016-17 season.
Apart from Bryant’s league-high $25 million coming off the books, Hibbert’s contract is also sizable. After that, there’s a steep drop-off to the lesser expiring salaries of free agents like Kelly, Sacre, Metta World Peace and Marcelo Huertas.
Including free agents on both ends of a deal would help shuffle the deck without adversely affecting future buying power. However, that assumes each team is equally interested in a test drive with no guarantees.
For instance, Hibbert could be dealt to the Boston Celtics for David Lee and his expiring salary of roughly $15.5 million. But while Lee’s name keeps coming up in league-wide trade talk, there’s little about Big Roy that would entice the Celtics with their uptempo flex offense.
A more modest and less financially challenging trade situation could involve Bass, who has been getting some minutes lately, including a season-high 18 points in a loss against the Sacramento Kings on Jan. 20.
According to Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler, Bass is “likely to be moved” at the deadline. This could potentially do the cap space imperative even better—by actually adding to the Lakers’ war chest.
By sending the veteran out in exchange for additional financial flexibility or a second-round pick, the Lakers could also increase the development minutes for young frontcourt players like Randle, Nance Jr. and Black.