How LA Lakers Should Address Each Area of Need at the NBA Trade Deadline
The Los Angeles Lakers have improved over last season's 17-win debacle but are facing a fourth straight trip to the NBA's draft lottery. The team started the year with 10 victories in its first 20 tries but has since flatlined, winning just five of the next 26.
Despite their many struggles, the Lakers are only five games behind the eighth-place Denver Nuggets.
The Lakers' hot start did more than just keep the team in sight of an unthinkably early postseason bid. It may have also cost the Lakers their 2017 first-round pick, which would mean finally paying the price for acquiring Steve Nash in 2012.
If the Lakers don't luck into a top-three lottery pick, they'll forfeit their selection to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Should general manager Mitch Kupchak search for a deal to try to push the Lakers into the playoffs? Or should he stay the course, trust the process and look to add to the team's youthful core? Or should he sell off just enough fringe parts to insulate against wins rather than lose another prime draft choice?
Kupchak and the Lakers have until the NBA's February 23 trade deadline to decide.
Perhaps their young players will reach great heights, but in the meantime, the Lakers just aren't a very good basketball team. Don't expect them to be represented at February's NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans.
Nevertheless, several franchises would be thrilled to acquire prospects like Brandon Ingram, D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and/or Larry Nance Jr.
If the Lakers are willing to make a major move, they'll find takers, but would those takers offer enough in return?
A few high-quality players may be on the block, including Carmelo Anthony, Paul Millsap and DeMarcus Cousins. Anthony's relationship with the New York Knicks is on tenuous ground, per ESPN.com's Ian Begley. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chris Vivlamore, the Atlanta Hawks have taken Millsap off the market after soliciting offers.
Cousins has had more downs than ups with the Sacramento Kings but currently appears to be in the team's good graces. ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported that the Kings are preparing to offer Cousins a long-term extension.
Both Anthony and Millsap are over 30 years old. Cousins has a volatile personality. The Lakers may be better off holding on to their kids than reaching for the wrong stars.
Instead, the team should make cursory calls to the Chicago Bulls (Jimmy Butler), Indiana Pacers (Paul George), Los Angeles Clippers (Blake Griffin) and Washington Wizards (John Wall), just to gauge interest. Griffin can leave the Clippers as a free agent this summer. The Bulls, Pacers and Wizards are underperforming.
The difficult reality (for the Lakers) is that it's extremely rare for top NBA players to be traded. Teams may look to make a change, but how often does that include selling off an All-Star? The Lakers are far more likely to hold on to their kids, but it doesn't hurt to explore opportunities.
Bolster the Defense
The Lakers can score but can't stop other teams from doing the same. If there's an area Mitch Kupchak needs to bolster more than any other, it's on the defensive side of the floor.
According to NBA.com, the Lakers have the worst defensive rating in the entire league, allowing 110.5 points per every 100 possessions through January 17.
The Philadelphia 76ers have too many centers on their roster with Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel. Of the three, Noel will be a restricted free agent this summer and may not fit into his team's future. He is a noted defender and is under contract for just $4.4 million this season but will likely garner a significant raise this summer. If the Lakers can poach him from the 76ers, he could be a nice addition to the core.
Noel voiced his concerns, per Jessica Camerato of CSN Philly, saying, "I'm too good to be playing eight minutes."
He has since earned a larger role in the Sixers' rotation, but his future with the franchise is murky unless the team pivots and trades Okafor instead. Philly.com's Bob Brookover argued that the team should deal both.
The challenges are the price in trade, the $64 million owed to current center Timofey Mozgov through the 2019-20 season and the development of rookie Ivica Zubac.
The Lakers should also reach out to the Brooklyn Nets to see if wing defender Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is available.
Fix the Summer's Missteps
The Lakers overinvested in Luol Deng and Mozgov this summer.
Deng will earn $72 million through four seasons while playing the same position as the team's No. 2 draft pick, Ingram.
Mozgov has been solid but not spectacular, averaging 7.9 points and 4.7 rebounds a game as the Lakers' second-highest-paid player. Deng hit just 48 of his first 145 shots (33.1 percent) through November but hit at a 45.5 percent clip in December, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Neither has done enough to make a difference.
Can the Lakers find a team willing to take either veteran off their hands?
Deng played several years with coach Tom Thibodeau in Chicago with the Bulls. Would Thibodeau, now running the Minnesota Timberwolves, be open to a reunion? The interest in Mozgov may be scant with the league playing smaller, but the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks may need a serviceable center.
Bringing quality veterans to the Lakers locker room was a sound idea, but not at the price the Lakers paid. For now, the team is probably stuck with its investments in Deng and Mozgov.
Protect the 1st-Round Pick
The more the Lakers win, the less likely they are to keep their 2017 first-rounder.
That doesn't mean the team should try to lose—that sends the wrong message to the franchise's developing players. That said, the front office might look to part with veterans like Lou Williams, whose individual scoring ability has kept the Lakers in a fair share of games this season.
Sweet Lou earns $7 million a season with one more year left on his contract. He could help a contending team in the playoffs as a bench scorer while helping the Lakers address their youth in return—be it in another prospect or draft considerations. Nick Young might fit that criteria as well, earning $5.4 million this season with a player option on his $5.7 million salary for 2017-18.
The Lakers would improve their odds at a top-three pick, give more time to their developing players and add on additional young talent by moving either or both.
How good would UCLA's Lonzo Ball look in the Lakers' purple and gold?
Work the Fringes
The Lakers have several players on friendly contracts like Jose Calderon, Marcelo Huertas, Tarik Black, Metta World Peace and Thomas Robinson.
Calderon is in the final year of his pact at $7.7 million. Huertas is earning $1.5 million with a non-guaranteed second season at $1.6 million. Both are veteran point guards, although Huertas got most of his experience playing overseas.
Black is the most likely to interest teams as an energy forward/center on an economical $6.2 million (with an additional non-guaranteed season at $6.7 million). Both World Peace and Robinson are minimum-salaried players on one-year contracts.
The Lakers aren't likely to get much back in trade. But on occasion, teams are willing to move out a solid player on a multiyear contract for those on shorter-term deals—especially if said player also better fills a need.
For instance, perhaps the Milwaukee Bucks might be open to dealing John Henson, an accomplished shot-blocker. His $44 million contract might give the Lakers pause, but if they can also shed Mozgov's contract elsewhere, the 26-year-old Henson might be a better fit defensively.
Kick the Can
The Lakers are still learning what they have in their young players. Chasing stars may prove too costly; prospects often need three or four seasons to come into their own.
If the team's greatest need is time to develop, then trades are not the answer.
The Lakers could have nearly $32 million in spending power this summer to try to lure a free agent like Gordon Hayward, George Hill, Griffin, Millsap or Noel. A scorer like Williams or a role player like Tarik Black might yet prove helpful on a competitive roster next season.
Giving up real value for Griffin or Noel in a trade may not make sense if either was willing to sign outright with the team next summer. For example, the Lakers may be better off gambling that the Sixers don't match an offer for Noel during July than giving up anything at all for him in a February trade.
Unless another team is offering a favorable deal, the Lakers may simply let the year play out as another season of development, with the hope that the talent already on the roster will eventually emerge as stars in their own rights. That's always the best value.