5 Questions the L.A. Lakers Must Answer Before 2017 NBA Trade DeadlineJanuary 31, 2017
5 Questions the L.A. Lakers Must Answer Before 2017 NBA Trade Deadline
LOS ANGELES — Twenty games into the 2016-17 NBA season, the young Los Angeles Lakers were 10-10 and flirting with a playoff berth.
Now, with 50 played, L.A. (16-34) has all but fallen out of the race entirely, managing the league's third-worst winning percentage, behind just the Brooklyn Nets (9-39) and Phoenix Suns (15-33).
With their postseason hopes reasonably dashed, the Lakers are better off prioritizing lottery position for the 2017 NBA draft than winning games. That doesn't mean Luke Walton will coach to lose, but L.A.'s front office might want to consider taking a few cards out of the head coach's deck prior to the Feb. 23 trade deadline.
Over the next few weeks, general manager Mitch Kupchak needs to think long and hard about the Lakers' future. Is the team building around the right core of young players? Should the franchise look to lure a star player via trade?
Perhaps the only way Los Angeles can take a sizable step forward is by taking another step back.
Do All the Kids Make the Cut?
Losing in the NBA is a painful process, especially over multiple seasons. This will be made even tougher for L.A. if it loses its top-three-protected pick to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Even if the Lakers do keep their selection, they've already collected an impressive list of prospects. Kupchak is optimistic, hoping that the team's sizable fanbase recognizes the progress, despite the current losing.
"I think they get it. They see the six or seven young guys," Kupchak said to David Aldridge of NBA.com. "They see the future. They see the plan unfolding in front of their eyes. We’ve got cap flexibility this summer and going forward. So I like where we are. I’d like to win a couple more games, but I think our future’s very bright."
Kupchak must decide if each member of his young core is worth holding onto. The group's potential may be tantalizing, but L.A faces the reality that youngsters often struggle to win as they learn the NBA game.
D'Angelo Russell is averaging 14.3 points and 4.4 assists in 26.3 minutes a night, but he's shooting just 39.6 percent from the field and has missed 16 games, primarily with knee injuries. Julius Randle is near a double-double with 13.0 points and 8.4 rebounds per contest, along with 3.8 assists. When L.A. gets rolling in the open court, his playmaking has impressed; however, he seems to lose focus.
Brandon Ingram hasn't scored over the Lakers' last two games. His 8.0 points a night have come on an inefficient 35.8 percent from the field and 28.4 percent from three-point range. Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. are productive bench players, while Ivica Zubac has made the most of his recent minutes.
Can the Lakers speed up the rebuilding process by acquiring veteran stars in exchange for prospects? Are there any stars even available?
Kupchak appears patient, but he must be sure that's the right path—especially if his phone starts ringing as the deadline creeps closer.
Can the Lakers Take Advantage of a Team in Turmoil?
The Chicago Bulls (24-25) have not lived up to expectations. To make matters worse, they recently endured a public spat with veterans Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade calling out teammates' effort, as detailed by Steve Aschburner of NBA.com. There was also the retaliation from Rajon Rondo, courtesy of his Instagram.
Wade can opt out of his $23.8 million salary next season, Rondo's $13.4 million has only $3 million guaranteed, per Basketball Insiders, and Butler (earning $75.9 million, including $17.6 million for the current year) has a player option for 2019-20.
The Bulls may have enough time to get their house in order with Butler locked in. But if they're looking to make a change—and if Butler decides he won't find happiness in Chicago over the next three years—would the Lakers be willing to give up a piece or two of their youthful core to get a deal done?
A combination of Tarik Black and Clarkson could work financially, but if Kupchak were pressed to give up more talent (like Russell, Randle or Ingram), would the Lakers find themselves in a similar position (i.e., without enough rostered talent to make Butler happy)?
Unless Chicago was willing to take back a veteran like Timofey Mozgov or Luol Deng, the Lakers might find a deal difficult to construct without Clarkson's $12.5 million. The team cannot send Jose Calderon's expiring $7.7 million contract back to Chicago, since the Bulls traded the veteran point guard to the Lakers this past July.
Admittedly, star players are unlikely to be dealt this season due to the incoming collective bargaining agreement, which will highly incentivize players to stay home and get paid. But be it Butler or another of the league's finest—like DeMarcus Cousins or Paul George—Kupchak should at least be in on the conversation.
What Can Lou Williams, Nick Young Return in Trade?
Walton seems to recognize the Lakers aren't making the playoffs, per Serena Winters of LakersNation.com, who recently tweeted that the further the team gets from the postseason, the more likely it is to develop youngsters.
How do veterans like Lou Williams and Nick Young fit into that equation? For starters, they could appeal to other teams due to their scoring and shooting abilities. Williams also has a friendly salary at a flat $7 million for this year and next, while Young is earning $5.4 million with a player option on next season's $5.7 million.
The Lakers may want to keep Williams' scoring punch for the 2017-18 campaign, but he's already 30 years old. Young, at 31, may opt out to pursue a more lucrative deal. So there's one important question: Can Kupchak flip either for first-rounders?
The NBA's new collective bargaining agreement may encourage teams to keep first-round picks. And how many teams feel like they're "one piece away" while running against the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers of the world?
Quality draft considerations may be hard to come by—especially in return for Young, who can opt out.
Kupchak could also look to make a deal for someone who has the potential to break out, similar to his 2014 trade that sent Steve Blake to the Warriors for Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks.
The Lakers should at least inquire to see if players like Stanley Johnson, Nerlens Noel, Troy Daniels, James Ennis, John Henson, Jeremy Lamb, Cameron Payne and Ben McLemore are available. That's just a sample of names; some are veterans but most are young players still finding their way in the league.
If Kupchak does find a taker for either veteran guard, salaries in trade would have to match within the strict rules of the league's CBA.
Do Mozgov, Deng Hold Any Trade Value?
The Lakers' four-year, $72 million investment in Deng this past summer was puzzling given they drafted Ingram. If Ingram is the team's small forward of the future, he needs to be starting full time next season. And if the idea is to play Deng at the 4, L.A. already has Randle and Nance.
At least in Mozgov's case (four years, $64 million), the Lakers seemed to need a starting center for the next few seasons. But the recent emergence of Zubac, the team's No. 32 pick in June, makes the Russian's deal as troubling as Deng's.
Los Angeles needs to rely more on players like Ingram and Zubac than its veterans down the stretch of 2016-17.
While Williams and Young may have trade value on reasonable contracts, Mozgov and Deng look unmovable for the time being: Mozgov has made 49 starts this season, averaging 7.6 points and 5.0 rebounds a night. Deng is giving the Lakers a similar line at 8.0 and 5.6, respectively.
Which teams need a replacement-level center locked in on a three-year deal? Perhaps the Dallas Mavericks, who have Andrew Bogut on an expiring $11 million contract. Do the Portland Trail Blazers plan on paying pending restricted free agent Mason Plumlee? Or would they rather swap out Allen Crabbe, Mo Harkless or Meyers Leonard, all on long-term contracts?
Would the Minnesota Timberwolves have any interest in Deng? He and Tom Thibodeau spent years together with the Bulls.
In all cases, the answer is probably "no," but Kupchak would be remiss not to explore the market.
Who Do the Lakers Have Targeted in the Offseason?
Any front office decisions from the Lakers must take their offseason into consideration.
The NBA projects the salary cap for the 2017-18 season to reach $103 million, per Basketball Insiders. The Lakers currently have $69 million in committed salaries to nine players (Deng, Mozgov, Clarkson, Williams, Russell, Ingram, Randle, Nance and Zubac). Black ($6.7 million) and Marcelo Huertas ($1.6 million) have non-guaranteed contracts.
The variables outside of the Lakers' control include Young's $5.7 million player option and the $5.6 million to $7 million in cap space a top-three pick would take up. Additionally, every open roster spot (up to 12) will eat $815,615 in cap space.
Assuming Young opts out, the Lakers cut Huertas but keep Black and win the third pick in the lottery, they'll have roughly $20.8 million in salary cap space this summer.
If the team also waives Black and loses its pick to the Sixers, it would have roughly $31.5 million in spending power—just enough to try to entice Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin to change locker rooms at a starting salary of about $30.9 million.
Other top free agents this summer could include Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Kyle Lowry, Danilo Gallinari, Gordon Hayward, George Hill, Greg Monroe, Jeff Teague, Jrue Holiday, Paul Millsap and Serge Ibaka, among others.
Whether the Lakers can afford any of those players depends on a handful of roster decisions and the draft lottery. If Kupchak has placed a priority on free agency, he may need to move Young and Williams to ensure the franchise has spending power.
Los Angeles has not signed a high-impact player for several summers. Perhaps acquiring talent via trade is the wisest path—one the team could walk down before the February deadline or over the offseason.
All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Stats are accurate as of Jan. 29. Email Eric Pincus at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.