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Lakers-Pacers Staring Contest May Last at Least 20 Games

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusFeatured Columnist IOctober 3, 2022

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 12: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers passes between Myles Turner #33 and Justin Holiday #8 of the Indiana Pacers during the second quarter at Staples Center on March 12, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE.
Harry How

The Los Angeles Lakers (33-49) and Indiana Pacers (25-57) are both coming off down seasons, combining for fewer victories than the 64-win Phoenix Suns. With the 2022-23 season less than a few weeks away, the two franchises may be inextricably linked, patiently waiting for the other to fail.

The Lakers' Russell Westbrook experiment was a disaster in year one. The team tried to trade him ahead of last February's deadline, near the draft in June and well into the July free-agent period.

But other teams aren't blind to the pressure on executive Rob Pelinka to field a contender in Los Angeles. L.A. only has two significant assets to offer: first-round picks (2027 and 2029), well after both LeBron James and Anthony Davis' contracts expire. That's been the asking price from most teams for players who may or may not move the needle for Los Angeles.

"You have one shot to make a trade with multiple picks," Pelinka said last week at Lakers media day. "We will do everything we can, picks included, to make deals that give us a chance to help LeBron."

That's why the Pacers have chosen to be patient with Myles Turner, a player they've shopped in trade over the last couple of seasons. The Lakers are interested, but Indiana is asking for everything Pelinka has to offer. The Pacers are in no rush, telling other teams that Turner isn't available.

The Athletic's Bob Kravitz warned that the Pacers are playing a dangerous game by waiting, "A failure to deal him [Turner] before the trade deadline would be management malpractice."

Kravitz's assumption that "the Pacers aren't going to lose him for nothing" is fundamentally correct, but the team shouldn't trade him for less today if they can get more tomorrow.

And the Lakers, who at this point may be underrated given injuries to Davis and James last season, want to see what new head coach Darvin Ham has to offer before making an irreversible decision. Rather than give everything they have to the Pacers (in a deal that could also return Buddy Hield), the Lakers first want to see what players such as Damian Jones, Thomas Bryant and Westbrook can do under Ham.

The Lakers play 12 of their first 20 games at home. Half are against teams that made the playoffs last season. The Pacers may want to see if the Lakers start 5-15—while the Lakers target winning roughly 15.

Indiana has 11 of its first 20 at home, with 11 against playoff teams. The Pacers' 20th game is in Los Angeles against the Lakers. While many expect Indiana to "tank," that's not the plan internally. The hope is that Turner, who was injured for much of last season, will blend well with Tyrese Haliburton on a competitive roster.

The Lakers are similarly hoping the Pacers start closer to 5-15. If and when the franchise embraces the Victor Wembanyama chase in the 2023 draft lottery, that may lead to Turner (in the last year of his contract) asking for a trade.

ESPN's Zach Lowe recently said on his podcast, "My best intel is if the Lakers call Indiana right now and said, 'Both picks unprotected,' the Pacers would do that deal."

But that's "everything" from the Lakers' perspective. The team would rather wait for Indiana to feel its own pressure, given Turner can walk as an unrestricted free agent in July. Turner may also not be open to an extension. He would initially be limited to a 5 percent raise (for six months after a trade), and then up to 20 percent, but he may choose free agency where he can try to double his salary, with a max at approximately $40.2 million.

Will any team give up a first, let alone two, to get a player who might leave after the season? The Lakers may not be eager to repeat history (Dwight Howard after the 2012-23 season).

If there's a viable comp for Turner, it'd be the 2025 first-round pick the Detroit Pistons received from the Portland Trail Blazers (via Milwaukee) for Jerami Grant. The Bucks still project to be a top team with Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Lakers' picks may be further away, but they have tremendous speculative value.

With that in mind, the Lakers will wait. If the results are awful or even mediocre, the Pacers will count on James being the leverage for those two firsts. If the Pacers crash and burn (and perhaps Turner asks for a trade), the Lakers aren't likely to offer more than one of the two firsts.

Who blinks first? For now, both teams will play out the cards they're dealt and wait for the other to fold.

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.

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