How to Fix the Los Angeles Lakers, Toronto Raptors and the NBA's Most Desperate Teams

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRFeatured Columnist IVDecember 28, 2022

How to Fix the Los Angeles Lakers, Toronto Raptors and the NBA's Most Desperate Teams

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    TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 07: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers dribbles against Gary Trent Jr. #33 of the Toronto Raptors during the second half of their NBA game at Scotiabank Arena on December 7, 2022 in Toronto, Canada. 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 Cole Burston/Getty Images)
    Cole Burston/Getty Images

    As the NBA season nears the midway point, desperation has begun to set in for a number of teams who began the year with high expectations.

    With so much basketball yet to be played and with the Feb. 9 trade deadline still more than a month away, all hope shouldn't be lost, however.

    For the following five teams who have tumbled into play-in tournament range (or worse), the path back to contention varies. Be it changes to the starting lineup or rotation, seeking a key player via trade or simply punting on this season for the hopes of a better draft pick and a brighter 2023-24, getting out of basketball purgatory can take many different paths.

    These are the transactions and in-house moves the Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers, Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards should make before it's too late.

    Nearly in desperation mode: Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves.

Charlotte Hornets

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    SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 19: Gordon Hayward #20, P.J. Washington #25, and LaMelo Ball #1 of the Charlotte Hornets walk to the bench during a timeout during the game against the Sacramento Kings on December 19, 2022 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California. 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 Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

    Current Record/Standing: 9-25, 14th in the East

    Step 1: Embrace the Tank

    Making the playoffs was always going to be difficult for Charlotte in an improved East, a task that became nearly impossible after LaMelo Ball missed 24 of the team's first 27 games because of an ankle injury.

    Even with Ball, the Hornets are just 3-7. They have three wins over teams with winning records this season.

    Charlotte's focus should now shift to developing the young talent on its roster and playing for a top draft pick, a selection they're tied for the best odds to land. Scrapping and clawing to make the play-in tournament won't do a whole lot for the future of the franchise. Landing a player like Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson would.

    This isn't a complete teardown but rather a one-year reset.

    Step 2: Start the Fire Sale

    As bad as these Hornets are, fellow lottery-bound teams like the Detroit Pistons, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder could all execute better tank jobs over the final few months of the season. If Charlotte stands pat and gets a healthy Ball for the rest of the campaign, this team could be a little too good.

    Veterans on expiring contracts like Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mason Plumlee will be the easiest to move, especially with both earning $12.6 million or less.

    Getting off the remaining contracts of Gordon Hayward ($31.5 million in 2023-24) and Terry Rozier ($74.7 million over three seasons) is going to take another desperate team looking to win now (hello, Los Angeles Lakers) but could help clear some immense cap space if flipped for an expiring contract.

    Step 3: Don't Give Up on P.J. Washington

    Washington was supposed to thrive in a starting role this season, becoming a strong shot-maker and defender while going into a contract year.

    While he's averaging a career-high 14.8 points per game, he is doing it on the worst true shooting mark (52.0 percent) of his career, while his rebound, assist, steal and block percentages are all down from last season.

    Paying him next summer isn't going to be fun, as still lists his real-time contract value this year at $22.1 million. If Charlotte can re-sign him for less than $20 million annually, it probably should, however.

    Washington has struggled playing next to shoot-first guards like Rozier and Oubre, making just 35.6 percent of his shots off passes from the former and 24.2 percent from the latter. When getting looks from Ball, however, Washington is up to 51.3 percent, including a 54.5 percent mark from three.

    Unless another team offers a first-round pick, the Hornets should stick with and eventually re-sign their 24-year-old forward.

Chicago Bulls

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    CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - NOVEMBER 21: Zach LaVine #8 and DeMar DeRozan #11 of the Chicago Bulls look on against the Boston Celtics during the second half at United Center on November 21, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. 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 Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    Current Record/Standing: 14-19, 11th in the East

    Step 1: Resist Rebuilding…

    Little has gone right this year for the Bulls, although this roster still features a lot of talent and sits just one game out of the play-in tournament in the East.

    It would take a masterful (and lucky) tank job to keep their 2023 first-round pick, a top-four protected selection owed to the Orlando Magic. If the season ended today, Chicago would only have a 23.1 percent chance to keep its pick despite its poor play thus far. Even finishing with the worst record in the NBA would only mean a 52.1 percent chance for the Bulls to keep their 2023 first.

    Tanking now would only benefit the Magic, who could wind up with two of the top-five picks in the draft.

    Step 2: …but Take Phone Calls

    While tearing this roster down to the studs is a mistake, the Bulls would be remiss if they didn't at least answer the phone from teams inquiring about some of the veterans on the roster from now until the deadline.

    Players like Nikola Vučević, Andre Drummond, Goran Dragić, Coby White, Javonte Green and Derrick Jones Jr. can all become free agents in 2023. If Chicago doesn't view someone as part of its long-term plans, trying to restock a cabinet of draft picks that's become bare would be smart.

    Outside of a 2023 first owed to the Magic, Chicago needs to send its next tradable first-round pick (top-10 protected) to the San Antonio Spurs and only possesses a single tradable second-round selection.

    Seeing what offers are out there for players like DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine should be explored, although neither should be on the trade block yet.

    Step 3: Play Small Ball

    As much as the Bulls would love to see third-year forward Patrick Williams develop into a star, they are getting beat by 9.8 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor this season (14th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass).

    The Bulls have been far better with Williams on the bench and utilizing a smaller lineup with LaVine and DeRozan lined up at the two forward positions.

    With LaVine and DeRozan at forward, Chicago has a net rating of plus-12.9 in 206 possessions (97th percentile). When using a more traditional lineup with both on the wing and two big men, this number plummets to minus-5.0 (24th percentile).

    It's time to consider benching Williams or using him as trade bait to land veteran help.

Los Angeles Lakers

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    MILWAUKEE, WI - DECEMBER 2: LeBron James #6, Anthony Davis #3 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers stand on the court during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on December 2, 2022 at the Fiserv Forum Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 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 2022 NBAE (Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images).
    Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

    Current Record/Standing: 13-20, 13th in the West

    Step 1: Get Clarity on Anthony Davis

    Currently sidelined with a stress injury in his right foot, Anthony Davis could either treat his latest ailment with rest or surgery, something that hasn't been determined at this point.

    The aggressiveness with which Los Angeles attacks the trade deadline will largely depend on Davis' health, as the eight-time All-Star is putting together a huge season (27.4 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, 59.4 percent shooting) while he and LeBron James do their best to keep the team's playoff hopes alive.

    The Lakers just have a net rating of minus-8.7 (12th percentile) without Davis on the floor this season, however, with a record of 2-6 when he misses time.

    For now, L.A. needs to gather as much info on Davis' injury as it can as soon as possible.

    Step 2: Add Shooting/Improve Shot Selection

    While they've been better as of late, the Lakers still rank dead last in made three-pointers per game (10.2) and 26th in accuracy (33.5 percent), failing once again to put enough floor-spacers around James and Davis.

    Five of the Lakers' top-seven players in three-point attempts are shooting 31.0 percent or worse from deep, with players like Russell Westbrook (28.4 percent on 3.9 attempts per game) and James (30.6 percent on 6.9 attempts) settling for outside looks far too often.

    Regardless of the magnitude of the trade, the Lakers need to inject a few more snipers on this roster.

    Step 3: Kill the Russell Westbrook Experiment Once and for All

    Is Westbrook really better this season as a sixth man, or are we just not noticing his faults as much?

    Raw numbers of 14.6 points, 7.5 assists and 6.1 rebounds per game may get him some 6MOY love, although in reality, Westbrook is much of the same player just in a lesser role.

    Westbrook's true shooting mark (48.5 percent) is the worst of his career, his three-point shot frequency is actually up from last year (29.1 percent of all shot attempts from 21.5 percent in 2021-22) and an 18.5 percent turnover rate is the highest of his 15 seasons.

    While the Lakers can simply let his contract run out and use the extra cap space this summer, Westbrook's expiring deal is one of the last remaining trade assets this team has left.

    Los Angeles needs to move on from Westbrook, using his deal as its best option to match money with before the deadline.

Toronto Raptors

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    TORONTO, CANADA - FEBRUARY 1: Scottie Barnes #4, Gary Trent Jr. #33, Pascal Siakam #43 and Fred VanVleet #23 of the Toronto Raptors look on during the game against the Miami Heat on February 1, 2022 at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 2022 NBAE (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Kevin Sousa/NBAE via Getty Images

    Current Record/Standing: 15-18, 10th in the East

    Step 1: Explore All Trade Options

    Currently ranked 14th in offense and net rating and 12th in defense, these Raptors are the definition of an average team. Given the amount of talent in Toronto and the quality of the coaching staff and front office, however, this is a huge disappointment.

    This roster lacks shooting and playmaking and should be elite defensively given the amount of size and length that head coach Nick Nurse consistently puts on the floor.

    Toronto can trade up to four first-round picks in a deal and has six second-rounders it can part with as well. From adding shooting specialists to taking a home run swing at a star who becomes available (more on that in a moment) and anything in between, the Raptors should explore all trade avenues to improve their team. Tanking this season isn't acceptable.

    Step 2: Decide if the Guards Are Worth Investing In

    Nurse has used Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. as his starting backcourt for the majority of the season for a team that's ridiculously frontcourt-heavy.

    Unfortunately, we've seen a drop-off in play from both, leading to a difficult situation just months before both can become unrestricted free agents.

    VanVleet is shooting just 38.2 percent overall this season, while the Raptors are 6.0 points per 100 possessions worse when Trent is in the game. Toronto needs to make a decision on how much it is willing to pay both in free agency or whether it's worth taking trade calls.

    Step 3: Find a Starting Lineup that Works

    The Raptors have used 17 different starting lineups in their 33 games this season, with none spending more than five contests together. This has led to a net rating of minus-4.9 in first quarters for Toronto, a mark that ranks 21st in the NBA.

    Obviously, consistency is a problem.

    While players like Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam are locks to start (with Scottie Barnes a heavy favorite as well), finding a fourth and or fifth guy to glue the rest of the starters together is still a work in progress.

    Toronto may not have any internal solutions right now and could be forced to turn to the trade deadline for help.

Washington Wizards

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    WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 31: Bradley Beal #3 and Kristaps Porzingis #6 of the Washington Wizards look on during the second half against the Philadelphia 76ers at Capital One Arena on October 31, 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 Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
    Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

    Current Record/Standing: 13-21, 12th in the East

    Step 1: Have an Honest Conversation with Bradley Beal

    A 10-7 start to season has turned into a 3-14 free-fall for these Wizards, who are now in serious danger of missing the play-in tournament.

    Although Beal inked a five-year, $251 million deal just months ago, both sides need to decide if staying together is really the best for everyone. Washington has never made it past the second round with Beal in his 11 seasons and is just 9-13 when he's played this year.

    Beal was granted a no-trade clause, so he'll need to give his blessing for any deal to go through. He could be the missing piece for a number of playoff-hopefuls (Raptors, New York Knicks, Miami Heat), however, with the Wizards likely netting multiple first-round picks and players in return.

    Step 2: Sell High on Kyle Kuzma, Kristaps Porzingis

    Regardless of what Beal and the Wizards decide, selling high on Kuzma and Porzingis at the deadline needs to be a priority. Both can become unrestricted free agents next summer, with Kuzma almost certainly choosing not to play on his $13 million option.

    Kuzma is putting up strong numbers (21.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists), while Porzingis (active in 30 of the Wizards' 34 games) is showing remarkable durability while dropping 21.9 points a night.

    Washington doesn't just need a one-year reset like some others on this list but rather a full-on tank job. Moving Kuzma and Porzingis (as well as Will Barton) before they hit free agency will help with this process while adding future picks.

    Step 3: Throw the Kids into the Pool

    There are a lot of high draft picks all over this roster, with players like Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija, Corey Kispert and Johnny Davis all selected 15th or higher over the past four years.

    Unfortunately, we don't really know how good they are/will be, as inconsistent roles and being buried behind veterans haven't done any favors for their development. Selling off the vets and giving the young players bigger roles, for better or worse, is the best way to tell what kind of talent the Wizards possess.

    The best way to fix Washington is to unplug a franchise that's been running on low battery for years. A rebuild is desperately needed, with or without Beal.