With Anthony Davis in MVP Form, Lakers Should Go All-In This Trade Season

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusFeatured Columnist IDecember 5, 2022

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 04: Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates during the third quarter of the game against the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena on December 04, 2022 in Washington, DC. 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.  (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers (10-12) have won eight of their last 10 games, Anthony Davis has entered the NBA's Most Valuable Player conversation, and a team that was considered a punchline a few weeks ago is finally being taken seriously.

But with Davis back playing like "Bubble AD" after a signature win against the 16-6 Milwaukee Bucks on Friday and a 55-point explosion on Sunday against the Washington Wizards, it's now time for the Lakers front office to take this team's immediate future seriously.

Up until recently, the front office was close to letting this year's Lakers die on the vine. Rather than ship out Russell Westbrook and one or both of their available future first-round picks (2027 and 2029) to bolster a lost cause, the Lakers seemed resigned to waiting to shop for bigger upgrades around the 2023 draft and free agency. Los Angeles has preserved roughly $30-35 million in cap space for this upcoming summer.

But this recent surge makes a trade more likely than the alternative. Going for it this season is more of an option with Davis playing this well, picks and future cap space be damned.

Dave McMenamin @mcten

Rob Pelinka on the Lakers potentially trading their picks: “Let me be abundantly clear … (LeBron) committed to our organization, we’re going to commit to him - including those picks - to see him to the finish line.” He emphasizes that they only get one shot to trade the picks.

It's difficult to pinpoint precisely when Davis got past the back injury that ailed him early in the season, but he went from averaging 23.8 points and 10.6 rebounds in October to 27.2 points and 13.5 rebounds in November. That resurgence is carrying the Lakers even though LeBron James is not playing up to his usual standards.

Davis' Play at Center Should Impact Trade Board

Davis has been clear throughout his career that he prefers to play power forward. When the Lakers won the title in 2019-20, they had JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard in their rotation. Davis would shift to center in critical moments, especially in the playoffs, but it was a luxury.

It begs the question: If Davis is doing this much damage at center this season, why mess with what's working? Why chase players like Myles Turner, Jakob Poeltl or even Nikola Vucevic if it's only going to hamper your best player?

Davis doesn't need to be banging with bruisers such as Steven Adams every night. The Lakers have Thomas Bryant, Wenyen Gabriel or Damian Jones to ease that burden.

The league has gotten smaller, and Davis is a nuisance for the remaining true bigs in the NBA. While there's an impulse to downsize Davis' position to protect his body, most of his injuries have come from awkward falls or stepping on another player's foot. Does playing power forward instead of center really protect him from that kind of random ailment?

The Westbrook Reality

The Lakers have shopped Russell Westbrook since well before last year's trade deadline. But it isn't a certainty that he's on the way out of L.A. Westbrook may not fit perfectly alongside James, but he's hungrily feeding Davis assists at a very high clip.

The core dilemma is that while Westbrook may work as a sixth man during the regular season, it won't translate to the playoffs when bench play is typically minimized. Opponents tend to ignore him when he's off the ball, impinging on the space James and Davis need to operate.

If the Lakers trade Westbrook, they need to bring back a dynamic playmaker who will take some of that burden off James and ensure Davis continues to get high-percentage opportunities. That's why they acquired Westbrook from the Wizards in the first place, but they misjudged his fit alongside James. And it's why they chased Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving throughout the offseason.

Whether Irving is the answer is debatable. But how many NBA teams are eager to give up high-level playmakers?

If Brooklyn doesn't make Irving available, would a non-shooter like Ben Simmons—who ran point for the Philadelphia 76ers—make sense for L.A., given his ties to Klutch Sports?

It may take a few months to see if the Toronto Raptors (12-11) decide to change course and move core pieces like Fred VanVleet, who can opt out of his contract after the season. Do the Chicago Bulls (9-14) move DeMar DeRozan, who averaged 6.9 assists per game in 2020-21 with the San Antonio Spurs?

The Lakers seriously considered acquiring DeRozan last summer before they traded Westbrook, but his mid-range-heavy game and unreliable three-point shot might not mesh well with James and Davis.

When the Charlotte Hornets (7-16) made a pitch to the Utah Jazz for Donovan Mitchell during the offseason, the Lakers discussed a multi-team deal that would have brought Terry Rozier to L.A. Mitchell instead ended up with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Rozier is averaging a career-high 5.7 assists per game this season on the Hornets, but his shooting has fallen off a cliff (29.6 percent from three). Would he find his stroke alongside better players than Charlotte has on its young roster?

Might the Miami Heat send Kyle Lowry (and probably Duncan Robinson) to the Lakers for Westbrook and additional compensation? Would the Lakers consider a reunion with Minnesota Timberwolves guard D'Angelo Russell?

None of those scenarios are likely. Westbrook may not work in the playoffs, but the list of players who can adequately replace his shot creation is short.

What Else Do the Lakers Need?

The Lakers have three starters locked in with Lonnie Walker IV, James and Davis. They have open spots for a starting point guard and a wing who can defend, shoot and score. Jerami Grant (undoubtedly unavailable from the Portland Trail Blazers) is the model of what they could use most.

If Westbrook stays in L.A. past the trade deadline, Dennis Schröder will probably continue to start at the point. If not, Schröder would likely back up whomever the Lakers acquire to replace Westbrook. Austin Reaves has been a key rotation member as well, and Troy Brown Jr., Gabriel and Bryant round out the rotation. Another backup center wouldn't hurt, but that's a lower priority.

The Lakers can trade anyone on the roster except for James because of his recent extension. The expendable pieces include Patrick Beverley ($13 million), Kendrick Nunn ($5.3 million), Damian Jones ($2.3 million) and Juan Toscano-Anderson ($1.8 million). All but Jones (who has a player option of $2.6 million for 2023-24) are on expiring contracts.

The Lakers also have their two future first-round picks, several second-rounders, rookie Max Christie (owed $2.7 million through next season) and up to $6.4 million in cash to trade, as the potential outgoing players may not have significant on-court value.

Beverley and Nunn together can bring back $22.9 million in salary. The Lakers could take back up to $29.4 million if they packaged Beverley and Nunn with Jones, Toscano-Anderson and Christie. Add in Westbrook, and the range increases to $81.7-88.2 million. A blockbuster of that size is possible, but roster space and an increased luxury-tax bill could be impediments.

The list of available trade targets isn't yet clear, as the other 29 teams are currently trying to figure out where they stand. The trade market starts to heat up after December 15, which is when a majority of recently signed free agents can be traded. The Lakers may need a team or two to quit on the season if they want high-quality players in return, but that may only happen closer to the February 9 trade deadline.

Potential targets could include:

  • Bojan Bogdanović and Alec Burks (Detroit Pistons)
  • Mo Bamba, Gary Harris and Terrence Ross (Orlando Magic)
  • Buddy Hield (Indiana Pacers)
  • Cam Reddish and Evan Fournier (New York Knicks)
  • Jae Crowder (Phoenix Suns)
  • Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher (Toronto Raptors)
  • Kyle Kuzma (Washington Wizards)
  • Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mason Plumlee (Hornets)
  • Eric Gordon and KJ Martin (Houston Rockets)
  • Bogdan Bogdanović and John Collins (Atlanta Hawks)
  • Seth Curry (Nets)
  • Alex Caruso (Bulls)
  • Matisse Thybulle (76ers)
  • Cedi Osman (Cavaliers)

Some are already buzzing as available in NBA circles, but many are not. Specifically, the Bulls, Hawks, Raptors and Wizards are still focused on making a playoff push.

But the Lakers need to be careful in how they proceed. As general manager Rob Pelinka stressed on media day, the team won't get a do-over on trading its available first-round picks. He could split them up into separate deals, possibly seeing what he can get for Beverley and Nunn before making the more delicate decision on Westbrook.

The Lakers' goal is to give Davis and James a real opportunity to compete for a title again. Given the way Davis is playing, the Lakers finally have some hope. That could lead to a busy trade season for them.

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