LOS ANGELES — The 11-14 Houston Rockets have taken a significant step backward since winning 65 games and playing in a seven-game Western Conference Finals last season. The biggest difference in the team's roster is the loss of defensive-minded starter Trevor Ariza.
Per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.com, the Lakers and Suns "have been working to reach an agreement with a third team that would take on Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope."
Long term, the Lakers don't have a second star next to James, and they're not likely to get one midseason. In Ariza, they're doubling up on defensive-minded role players who started the season with the Suns.
It'd be a smart play, much wiser than chasing a career scorer like Carmelo Anthony, whom the Rockets are paying not to play. With an elite offensive player like James, the Lakers need to surround him with defenders and shooters. Ariza may not be able to put as many points on the board as Anthony, but he's the better fit for the Lakers to get the stops they need for a deep playoff run.
Houston, reluctant to pay significant luxury taxes by retaining Ariza, is 26th in net defensive rating, allowing 112.2 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. That's a sizable drop-off from last year's 105.6 rating, good for seventh in the NBA.
That's not all because of Ariza's departure. The Rockets also let Luc Mbah a Moute leave to the Los Angeles Clippers, but Houston relied heavily on Ariza for almost 34 minutes per game. It's also not on Anthony, who, after being signed over the summer, has been excommunicated from the team after a slow start while Houston awaits a trade or buyout.
Like the Rockets, the Lakers would be much better off with Ariza, a player they're familiar with after he helped the team beat the Orlando Magic in the 2009 NBA Finals. General manager Rob Pelinka also knows Ariza well, representing him as an agent for multiple years with Landmark Sports.
Agent relationships are often a vital part of team building. The Lakers opened the door to LeBron James by signing fellow Klutch Sports client Caldwell-Pope in 2017, legally opening a channel to Klutch Sports agent Rich Paul, who also represents James. Los Angeles was able to build a foundation of trust with Paul, which helped lure James in July.
The Lakers re-signed Caldwell-Pope to a one-year, $12 million contract. By doing so, the team triggered the "one-year Bird rule" that enables the 25-year-old guard to block any trade this season. For an Ariza trade, Los Angeles will need Caldwell-Pope's blessing (along with Paul's). That discussions have progressed suggest they already have it.
Caldwell-Pope would also benefit financially from a move to Phoenix, thanks to a 15 percent trade bonus in his contract that, prorated, would yield him almost an extra $1.2 million.
Given the Suns (4-23) are the only team in the Western Conference out of the playoff picture, they don't have as much of a need for Ariza's veteran experience as they hoped when they signed him. Similarly, they don't need Caldwell-Pope, so they're canvassing the league instead for a point guard and/or draft considerations in a multiteam deal with the Lakers.
Los Angeles would be wise to include a second-rounder in its offer to Phoenix, maybe even two, but not a first. If the Suns don't get a deal done, they may eventually buy out Ariza after the trade deadline in February. If the Lakers do succeed in landing a maximum-salaried free agent next summer, Ariza would likely be a short-term rental, unless he's willing to return on a sizable discount.
The Lakers recently benefitted from a Phoenix buyout, adding Tyson Chandler as a free agent once the Suns waived him. Ariza would have a similar positive impact on the Lakers.
When asked which player between Ariza and Anthony he preferred for the Lakers, one scout answered, "Ariza, as long as he's not taking away minutes from [Brandon] Ingram and [Kyle] Kuzma."
Should the Lakers ultimately match up against the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, Ariza's length would be a valuable tool to try and help slow down Kevin Durant. A combination of Brandon Ingram and Ariza may not be able to stop the Warriors' All-Star forward but the tandem would have a much stronger chance than Ingram paired with Caldwell-Pope. Ariza would also match up well against the Rockets given his experience in recent years with the franchise, assuming Houston pulls up from their early slide.
Caldwell-Pope is averaging 21.5 minutes per game for the Lakers. Ariza might welcome a reduction from his 33.6 nightly with the Suns, along with joining a team expecting to make a postseason push.
Several teams could use Caldwell-Pope but would also need to send out at least $8 million in player salaries (roughly; his trade kicker adjusts daily) to the Suns. Speculatively, the Philadelphia 76ers would have suitable options in return like Markelle Fultz and TJ McConnell, though they may prefer draft considerations over the Lakers guard.
It's worth noting that Caldwell-Pope's cap rights do not transfer over in a trade. The biggest raise his new team can give him is 120 percent unless it uses salary-cap room to do so.
As for the Lakers' quest to land a star like Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson or Kawhi Leonard in free agency in July, the impact of an Ariza/Caldwell-Pope swap is cap-neutral.
A deal wouldn't hurt the Lakers' chances at landing Anthony Davis, should the New Orleans All-Star become available in trade. Caldwell-Pope would be a valuable asset to help match salaries. Ariza wouldn't be eligible in such a deal, but Los Angeles could get to a deal with players like Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, Ingram, Kuzma and/or Lonzo Ball. Most combinations of the three pass the salary test, although to date the Pelicans have not shopped Davis.