LOS ANGELES — Before the season, Los Angeles Lakers President of Basketball Operations Earvin "Magic" Johnson called Larry Nance Jr. the team's secret weapon.
Visiting ESPN's First Take in September, Johnson said the Lakers had received multiple calls from teams asking for Nance in a trade, but that the Lakers had no interest in moving the forward.
That stance has changed, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, who wrote on Monday, "the Lakers have made it clear that [Jordan] Clarkson, Julius Randle and Larry Nance are available," heading into the February 8 NBA trade deadline.
Both general manager Rob Pelinka and Johnson have long stressed they hope to land two maximum-salaried players this summer. To do so, the Lakers would likely have to let Randle exit as a restricted free agent in July and get out of the final two years of Clarkson's deal ($25.9 million remaining) via trade.
The Nance information is new, but it's not surprising given the emergence of rookie Kyle Kuzma. Taken 27th in June's NBA draft, Kuzma is averaging 17.1 points a game while shooting 46.4 percent from the field and 37.8 percent from three-point range. Kuzma has been so good, so quickly this season, he's made both Nance and Randle expendable.
Per an Eastern Conference executive, Clarkson is probably the most attractive of the three rumored players, followed by Nance, then Randle, who he called an undersized center who will expect to be compensated this summer.
Nance is still on his rookie-scale contract, with $2.3 million owed next season before he hits restricted free agency in 2019. He would be eligible for an extension before the start of next season, either with the Lakers or a prospective trade partner.
Randle, who is earning $4.1 million this season, will take up $12.4 million of the Lakers' cap space as a free agent in July. To make him restricted, the team will need to issue him a qualifying offer of $5.6 million (provided Randle makes three more starts or plays another 984 minutes, otherwise that number drops to $4.3 million).
The Lakers can get to roughly $47.5 million in cap space (based on a projected $101 million 2018-19 salary cap) with Nance and either Randle or Clarkson by renouncing pending free agents Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Corey Brewer and waiving non-guaranteed players Ivica Zubac, Tyler Ennis and Thomas Bryant.
Los Angeles would love to move off Luol Deng's contract, at $36.8 million over the next two years, but thus far that's been a dead end on the trade front for the team.
According to Wojnarowski, the franchise has "given up hope on unloading Luol Deng's contract in a trade because it would simply necessitate attaching too many draft assets."
An alternative would be to waive and stretch his contract out over five seasons at $7.4 million, or even give Deng a partially-guaranteed extension and then stretch him over 11 years at approximately $3.3-4 million a season.
Either move would get the Lakers to the $57-62 million cap-space range while keeping Clarkson's salary or Randle's cap hold, but not both. Trading away Nance, without getting a player on a multi-year deal, would only open an additional $1.4 million in spending power.
If the Lakers cleared Randle, Clarkson, Nance and Deng (via stretch), the team would have $70-$74 million in spending power in July, with just Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Lonzo Ball and Kuzma under contract. That's enough to sign two superstars and still have some money to spare.
The best-case scenario for the Lakers is for the Oklahoma City Thunder (22-18) or New Orleans Pelicans (20-19) to quickly drop out of the playoff picture. The likelihood that Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins become available to the Lakers over the course of the next month is extremely slim.
The catch in almost any other deal the Lakers might pursue is protecting that spending power in July, barring an All-Star-caliber player in return. That means Los Angeles isn't likely to take on any contracts with guaranteed salary beyond the current season.
For Clarkson, Nance or Randle, individually or in a package, the Lakers might be open to a move that yields expiring contracts and a first-round pick. Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic is earning $12.5 million this season, with a team option for 2018-19. But with Kris Dunn playing well and Zach LaVine nearly back from a knee injury, along with Denzel Valentine, David Nwaba and Jerian Grant, would they have a need for Clarkson?
Perhaps Randle is more of a positional fit. The Lakers would need to include Corey Brewer to match salaries in a trade.
Randle was previously linked by Wojnarowski to the Dallas Mavericks for Nerlens Noel. The former Philadelphia 76er shares an agent with LeBron James in Rich Paul of Klutch Sports. Noel's full rights wouldn't transfer in trade; the Lakers would need to use cap room to re-sign him to a deal larger than $5 million.
Avery Bradley, a former client of Pelinka, is in the last year of his deal with the Detroit Pistons. If Detroit is concerned about losing a starter this summer, maybe it considers Clarkson for Anthony Tolliver and Bradley. As a free agent, Bradley will have a cap hold of $13.2 million this summer, but the Lakers would be off Clarkson's guaranteed salary and have a chance to keep Bradley long term.
Clarkson might be a fit with the Miami Heat in exchange for Wayne Ellington, but the Lakers may be looking for more than a straight salary dump. The same could be said of Greg Monroe of the Phoenix Suns.
Derrick Favors is in the last year of his deal at $12 million; would the Utah Jazz have interest in Randle (with Brewer as filler) as a replacement?
At $1.5 million, Nance doesn't make enough on his own to bring much back in return by himself. The Lakers could include Ivica Zubac and/or Tyler Ennis to round out the numbers if Nance is involved in the aforementioned packages instead of Randle.
The Lakers would like to add shooters and quality defenders, but everything must fit within the economic parameters of their goal to land a star duo this summer.
If the team intends to let Randle leave, it'd be wise to get any real value it can in return at the deadline. Nance could stick longer as a quality role player alongside any All-Star acquisitions. If trading him helps the Lakers execute their plan, though, so be it.
Los Angeles can wait on Clarkson as well. Not many teams will have significant cap room this summer, but quite a few should have enough to absorb his $12.5 million. However, can Johnson and Pelinka know that for sure?
Every decision involves risk. Bringing in potential long-term fits like Bradley, Mirotic, Favors or Noel might help the team pivot if it is unsuccessful in luring bigger names this summer.
With the playoffs a very long shot, the Lakers should do everything they can before the February 8 deadline to make sure they truly have the ammunition to go star-hunting this summer.