The Los Angeles Lakers face more scrutiny than your average team.
Being the Lakers, having won back-to-back NBA championships, featuring Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, and Phil Jackson, they are always under a microscope.
That's why, despite currently sporting a healthy 36-16 record and sitting atop the Pacific Division standings, it seems like the roof is caving in at the Staples Center.
A recent stretch of five losses in nine games, including being toppled at home by both the Celtics and the Spurs, and public comments from GM Mitch Kupchak about pondering a roster shakeup, have led to rumors piling up like cars during rush hour on the 101.
Who might be going? Who's definitely staying? Let's break down the roster, player-by-player, and evaluate these questions individually.
Clearly not off limits.
Either of these two little used veteran big men are good bets to be included in a trade.
Obviously, their value to the Lakers on the court is virtually non-existant, and they both have expiring contracts that would make them attractive pieces in a trade package.
They wouldn't be the primary pieces of a deal, but as cheap throw ins who could be released, thereby allowing the acquiring team to free up salary cap space, their names are bound to come up in discussions that the Lakers may or may not be having with teams that may or may not be based in the Rocky Mountains (or elsewhere).
I wouldn't call either of these two rookies off-limits exactly, but they're probably less likely to be packing their bags soon than other guys.
As second round draft picks last year, both of them have relatively affordable contracts, and both are still very young, with reasonable enough potential for the otherwise elderly Lakers to want to hold on to them for now.
Ebanks is only 21-years-old, and Caracter is 22. Both offer big bodies who could eventually fill larger roles on the team in the event that someone like Artest, Odom, Bynum, or Gasol are traded.
At the same time, though, if they were to be coveted for some reason by a potential trading partner, the Lakers wouldn't hold up a deal over their inclusion, that's for sure.
Neither player is going to be a franchise cornerstone anytime soon.
Walton is certainly not off-limits.
As much as he (and his famous father) have enjoyed being a part of L.A.'s title runs in recent years, he's seen his role on the Lakers dramatically reduced the last few seasons. He's gone from actually being a full-time starter a few years ago and averaging double figures in points, to basically being an afterthought this season, averaging less than 10 minutes per game.
The only hiccups would be his contract, which calls for him to make more than $11 million over the next two seasons after this one, and the fact that he'll be 31 by the end of this season. Both of those factors diminish his trade value. But if another team saw potential in him to return to his form, circa 2007, Los Angeles would be willing to listen.
Matt Barnes might be someone who would hold trade value, but there's one problem: he's hurt.
He tore cartilage in his right knee a month ago, and after having surgery to repair the injury, is expected to still be sidelined another month or two.
He does have a pretty affordable contract, though, with a player option for next season at just $1.9 million. And when he has played, he's provided the Lakers with his usual energy and scoring punch off the bench.
He was pursued over the summer by multiple teams, including Toronto (he went so far as to tweet that he was joining the Raptors before things fell apart), so maybe interest will spark up again.
Like most Lakers though, he's already over 30, and so his value is lessened for any team trying to build for the future. I'd say he'll still find himself in Hollywood when the dust settles.
Steve Blake has underperformed this season, and fallen into a bit of disfavor with Phil Jackson.
You might think that would make him perfect trade bait, but there's a problem here, too.
Blake was signed to a four year deal in the offseason, so he's under contract through 2014.
While he's making a relatively affordable $4 million per year, how many rebuilding teams are going to want an over 30 (yup, him too) player with three years left on his contract who has struggled this season?
He does still have value, or why else would L.A. have signed him to that four year deal? He might find his way out of Tinseltown yet.
Shannon Brown is probably the most attractive asset outside of their core veterans that the Lakers could offer in a trade. The question is, will they be willing to offer him?
My instinct says no.
He's been a valuable player of the bench, averaging 9.3 points in just 18.8 minutes, he's just 25 years old, and he's got an affordable contract for next season (a player option at $2.4 million).
Lots of teams will find those figures appealing, but so do the Lakers. In addition, he could decide to become a free agent at the end of the season, hurting his trade value because clubs that want him might be able to score him long term this coming summer.
I think he'll be talked about for all the reasons mentioned above, but in the end, the Lakers won't want to part with their top guard off the bench.
Fisher is 36-years-old and seems older than that.
He's also been essentially a Laker lifer (save for a brief detour in Golden State and Utah).
The only way that L.A. would move him is if they got a younger playmaker in return, someone like Kirk Hinrich, who they've been rumored to covet, or Luke Ridnour.
Otherwise, they'll be quite happy to stick with their old reliable, one of Kobe's confidants and coach Phil's trusted lieutenants.
Fisher's contract calls for him to make $3.4 million next year, with a $3.4 million player option after that.
I'd say he makes that money in purple and gold, before calling it a career.
Bynum is the most interesting case.
Recent reports have included him in a potential trade with the Nuggets for Carmelo Anthony, but everyone associated with the Lakers has publicly denied it, and it is believed that management, including Jim Buss, still considers the 23-year old center off-limits.
That hasn't stopped the reports from surfacing, however, and it's an intriguing idea.
Despite his obvious promise, Bynum has never been able to stay healthy, and that's prevented him from living up to his potential.
He's under contract next year at $15 million, with a team option for $16 million the year after that, and could be one player to provide L.A. some salary relief. The team already has the league's largest payroll, at close to $92 million.
The flip side to that equation is that Anthony obviously would bring even larger salary requirements of his own, so any money saved from parting ways with Bynum would be thrown out the window.
I wouldn't say he's likely to be moved, but if one of the core players is in his last days with the team, he might be the most likely to be that guy.
Artest has been reported to want out of L.A., but as with every one of these recent rumors, he's fervently denied that to be the case.
I'm sure they'd be more than happy to rid themselves of him at this point, but where would he go? He's got a $21.8 million salary obligation over the next three years, he's 31, and he's having the worst season of his career.
Plus, he brings constant drama and distraction wherever he is.
The Lakers can manage it, since they have drama and distractions all the time anyway. But other teams? Not so much. He'd have to be packaged with a more attractive asset such as Brown or Bynum, plus expiring contracts like Ratliff or Smith, to get a potential trading partner to swallow the pill.
Then we need to ask, are the Lakers willing to make such a big move that will completely alter the look of the roster? I'd lean more towards a minor move getting done in the next few weeks, not a blockbuster. That leaves Artest out.
But again, if some team comes calling about him, I'm sure the Lakers would do their due diligence to make it work.
Odom is more in the category of Shannon Brown than Ron Artest.
Meaning, he's actually highly attractive to other teams as a trade-able asset right now, but the Lakers probably don't want to part with him.
He's enjoying a renaissance season this year, his most productive in four or five years, averaging 15.3 points and 9.5 rebounds. Plus his contract is manageable, with $8.9 million due next year, and an $8.2 million team option for 2012-13.
Plus, on a team other than Los Angeles, he'd probably be even more valuable and productive. Will the Lakers listen to inquiries? Sure. Will they be especially receptive to them? Probably not.
If they do want to do something big before the deadline, they might have to be willing to include Odom. But unless they're desperate to blow things up (and I don't know why they would be), I'd say Odom is fairly off limits.
Pau Gasol isn't likely to be going anywhere.
The Lakers' acquisition of him back in 2008 was the key move that turned them into the perennial title contenders that they've been ever since.
He's blossomed in Phil Jackson's triangle offense, with Kobe Bryant taking the pressure off of him to be the primary scorer.
He's also due nearly $20 million each of the next three years, so he'd be hard to move even if the Lakers wanted to (which they don't).
Nobody is more key to the Lakers' chances this year, and in the near future, other than Kobe Bryant.
Obviously, Kobe Bryant is completely off limits.
The face of the franchise isn't going anywhere.
If he stuck around during the post-Shaq down years (and remember, there were rumors flying for a while back then that he wanted out), there's no reason that he'd be going anywhere now.
Not when the Lakers are chasing a second three-peat. Not when he's firmly established himself in the pantheon of Laker legends. Not when he's still the best all-around player in the game.
Whatever changes might occur between now and February 24th, Kobe won't be a part of them.
Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom won't be swapping uniforms. Andrew Bynum probably won't be, either. The Lakers would be happy to get an offer for Artest, but aren't likely to get one that makes sense.
To me, this means that the speculation about a major trade going down between now and the deadline will probably remain just that. As much as they might want to shake up the roster, it's probably a motivational ploy to get guys' attention more than anything.
Minor tweaking is more likely than major rebuilding. I apologize for those looking for something sensational here, but there's just not much flame underneath all the smoke. Like it or not, Laker fans, this is probably the team you'll be cheering on in May. We'll have to wait until then to find out if it's a good decision or not.