LOS ANGELES — When four-time MVP LeBron James agreed to a two-year, $97.1 million extension in August, the Los Angeles Lakers made a promise to supply him with the necessary pieces to compete for a championship throughout the duration of his tenure.
At the start of training camp, Lakers president of basketball operations Rob Pelinka said he’s responsible for being the "caretaker of LeBron’s legacy."
Almost a month into the 2022-23 NBA season, the current roster falls well short of "caretaker" status, and the Lakers' avenues to improvement are bleak.
After dropping a fourth consecutive contest and plunging to 2-9 on the season following a 114-101 loss to the Clippers (7-5) on Wednesday night, the Lakers' 11-game sample size is revealing enough to warrant drastic changes.
The organization is facing a critical decision in the James era, a decision that could prompt key players to sour on the direction of the franchise, league sources tell Bleacher Report. But there is still time for the Lakers to be active on the trade market as they prepare for a four-game homestand.
The question often discussed in Lakers’ headquarters nowadays is whether they should go all-in expeditiously on revamping the roster around James and Anthony Davis, or are they better served to postpone wholesale changes until the end of the season?
Lacking young, enticing assets and draft capital to strengthen the roster, the Lakers are only armed with two first-round picks in 2027 and 2029, respectively.
James, who turns 38 next month and is in Year 20 of his NBA career, does not want to waste a season of his high-level playing days in hopes of incoming reinforcements for the 2023-24 campaign, sources say. Other core players on the roster would likewise prefer those picks to be used to elevate this year’s team.
That’s the burdensome decision Pelinka now faces.
With the team’s trajectory trending south, sources indicate the front office is unlikely to attach those picks to a potential trade out of concern that such a transaction would not significantly change the course of the season.
It is not universally believed internally that a trade for Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner and sharpshooter Buddy Hield would move the needle to title contention, sources say.
If that concern proved to be accurate, the Lakers would be devoid of lucrative resources for the remainder of James’ contract, which runs through 2024-25.
As part of the loaded package to acquire Davis from New Orleans in 2019, the Lakers also gave the Pelicans the right to swap first-round picks in the 2023 NBA draft. If the season were to end today, the Lakers would have a pick in the lottery, but the Pelicans would swap for that pick because they have a better record.
Because of the NBA’s Stepien Rule, the Lakers cannot trade the swapped pick they receive from New Orleans until after they make that selection. At that point, they would be in position to offer three first-round picks in a trade package for a game-changing player.
A star player whom the Lakers are known to covet is Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal, sources say. Going after the 10-year veteran would only be an option if Beal were to request a trade, a tactic he has been reluctant to exercise.
With Russell Westbrook thriving in his new role as a sixth man, the Lakers are now receiving calls about his availability, sources say, but talks are not at a serious stage.
And while it’s been a talking point on social media, the Lakers are not considering trading Davis, according to sources. For any dialogue of that nature to occur, Klutch Sports CEO Rich Paul would have received calls from interested teams inquiring if his client would agree to an extension if they traded for him. Those conversations have not taken place, sources say.
James injured his groin midway through the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s loss and limped to the locker room, where he remained for the rest of the evening. It is unknown if he’ll miss time moving forward.
"If he has to sit a game or a few games, guys just got to be ready to play, compete and hoop," Lakers head coach Darvin Ham said afterward. "You can’t feel sorry for yourself…For guys to hang their heads, that can spill over to more games being lost."
Before James exited the game, he single-handedly tried to keep his team within reach of the deep, talented Clippers by pouring in a game-high 30 points in 32 minutes to go with eight boards, five assists and two steals.
Seven Clippers scored in double figures compared to the Lakers’ four double-figure contributors.
The exhausted Lakers superstar couldn’t do enough against the Clippers because he doesn’t have enough around him at the moment.