LOS ANGELES — Is it time for the Los Angeles Lakers to panic?
In addition to LeBron James' strained groin that could keep him sidelined for a week or two, the Lakers announced Friday that Rajon Rondo will miss another four to five weeks after surgery to repair a ligament in his right ring finger.
Given the injuries, do the Lakers need to make a trade to survive in the competitive Western Conference? Can they overcome their flaws, or do they need outside help?
Los Angeles previously survived when Rondo missed a month with a broken hand, but it didn't make it out of Sacramento on Thursday with a win. Suffice it to say, you must make your free throws. That's the clear takeaway from the Los Angeles Lakers' 117-116 buzzer-beating loss to the Kings on Thursday.
The Lakers (20-15) are dead last in the entire NBA, hitting just 69.4 percent from the line this season. It's a problem well-illustrated by the Bogdan Bogdanovic game-winner. Brandon Ingram's free-throw miss with 4.6 seconds left on the clock wasted strong performances from Kyle Kuzma (33 points) and Lonzo Ball (20 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds).
The Lakers score just 16 points per game at the stripe. Given that James is near his career low at 68.2 percent from the line, they may not be able to solve their free-throw crisis this season.
Their impressive Christmas Day win over the Golden State Warriors, blowing out the defending champs after James was sidelined with a groin injury, showed the Lakers may be further along than many expected at this point. A top-four seed seemed attainable before the season began, and now the West is more open at the top than in recent years, with the Warriors (23-13) and Houston Rockets (19-15) not nearly as dominant as they were a year ago.
"The Lakers are not going to be an easy out in the playoffs," one NBA executive said. "As long as James is healthy, no one is going to want to play them in a seven-game series."
Some of the preseason worries remain. The Lakers don't have a true second star next to James, although Kuzma seems eager to wear that hat. Free throws are a clear issue that has carried over from last year. The team's defense tends to come and go, steady until a player like James Harden or Davis Bertans (?) torches them in the fourth quarter.
Los Angeles is surprisingly respectable from three-point range at 34.8 percent on the year (17th overall). JaVale McGee, currently recovering from pneumonia, has helped the Lakers an 18-11 record in the games he's played. Without him, they're just 2-4. The addition of Tyson Chandler and the recent emergence of Ivica Zubac have made center depth a positive for the team. Rondo, when healthy, has been a strong mentor both on and off the court. Even Lance Stephenson has found his opportunities to give the Lakers a boost off the bench.
Despite their flaws and a series of injuries, the Lakers are just 2.5 games behind the first-place Denver Nuggets (21-11) and Warriors. If they can get a few wins without James, they should stay in contention for home-court advantage in at least the first round of the playoffs. But if things go south, trade chatter could start for the Lakers in a big way.
While L.A. was disappointed after the loss to the Kings (19-16), Sacramento's win may have long-term positive repercussions, given the Lakers' potential battle with the Boston Celtics to trade for New Orleans Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis. The Celtics' best trade chip in a future deal, outside of Jayson Tatum, was supposed to be its ownership of Sacramento's 2019 first-rounder. But the Kings' early success has weakened Boston's prized asset, and by the time the draft arrives in June, there's little chance that pick will be particularly high in the lottery, and it alone won't be worth a ton to the Pelicans in a trade.
James will turn 34 years old Sunday. The Lakers' championship window won't be open for long, and while adding Davis would significantly change the equation, the Pelicans appear unlikely to consider a midseason deal. Any team in contention wants to bolster its chances to compete for a title, but the Lakers will likely sit out any move that hurts their shot at Davis later or negatively impacts their projected cap space in July, which could be enough to sign a player like Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson or Kawhi Leonard as a free agent.
That leaves the Lakers in an awkward position, where they would love to make a deal before the Feb. 7 trade deadline, but only as long as that trade doesn't negatively affect their summer flexibility.
"We're in win-now mode," a Lakers executive said.
But the definition of "now" is vague. It probably means "win now, unless it costs us Davis, Durant, Thompson or Leonard later." Los Angeles almost made a trade that fit the bill in early December, when it tried to send out Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the Phoenix Suns for Trevor Ariza. Such a move was cap-neutral, as both players are the final years of their respective contracts. Phoenix chose not to help a division rival, though, sending Ariza instead to the Washington Wizards.
Perhaps the Lakers will search for an alternative return for Caldwell-Pope, but the 25-year-old guard has had a productive month, shooting 39.7 percent from three-point range over the last 13 games.
"KCP has turned the corner a bit," the executive said.
At Caldwell-Pope's $12 million salary, the Lakers can bring back a player (or players) earning as much as $17 million, although Caldwell-Pope can veto any trade as part of the one-year deal he signed over the summer. One ideal pickup would be Taj Gibson of the Minnesota Timberwolves, giving the Lakers another rugged power forward and small-ball center option. If the Wolves fall out of contention, would they deal Gibson, and if so, would they have interest in Caldwell-Pope?
Sean Deveney of Sporting News linked the Lakers to Wayne Ellington of the Miami Heat and Terrence Ross of the Orlando Magic. The Brooklyn Nets have a couple of veterans on expiring deals in DeMarre Carroll and Kenneth Faried. If the Lakers are aggressive enough, they may be able to find a deal. Does Carmelo Anthony do anything to solve the short-term problem, missing James and Rondo? Probably not.
L.A. does not appear willing to let any of the young core go (Josh Hart, Kuzma, Ingram and Ball); at least that's what several Lakers executives have indicated. That changes to some extent for Davis, but that may mean they won't chase Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards or Kemba Walker of the Charlotte Hornets. Either may be seasoned enough to win next to James, more so than a developing player like Ingram, but the Lakers might feel good enough about their chances in the West without sacrificing their shot at a superstar like Davis.
Even if they don't believe they're good enough to win it all, a crack at Davis later is worth the wait.
James' injury could highlight that time is short for the Lakers, but the team's goal is long-term, sustained success. If there's a shortcut to be found this season that gives them an even better chance to steal a title, they'll take it—but not if it costs the chance to build an undeniable dominant force in Los Angeles.