LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers (21-17) have a habit of ditching prized draft picks—the players earned over years of sub-mediocrity. And as Brandon Ingram shows flashes of brilliance but has yet to fully emerge as a bona fide star, he could be the next, like Julius Randle and D'Angelo Russell, to be sacrificed for the bigger picture.
With LeBron James sidelined with a groin injury, Ingram has looked great in stretches, notably in the team's win last Sunday over the Sacramento Kings, when he capably filled in as the team's point forward with 21 points and nine assists.
He also struggled late in recent losses to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers and Kings. That's not to say Ingram is why the Lakers have only one win without James. The team is also missing Rajon Rondo (hand) and lost Kyle Kuzma (lower-back contusion) in the second half against the Thunder.
But Ingram's lack of consistency and outside shot (he's shooting just 30.2 percent from three-point range) are problematic for a team with serious championship aspirations after it lured James over the summer. It's easy to forget that in his third season, Ingram is just 21 years old, merely 324 days older than Deandre Ayton, the Phoenix Suns' top pick in the 2018 NBA draft.
Whether or not Ingram is an ideal fit next to James stylistically, the bigger issue may be financial as the Lakers search to add a second star.
James told Rachel Nichols of ESPN it "would be ideal" to bring in another elite player. "Being in L.A., I don't think it will be that hard to get guys here," he said.
So team president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka are tasked with acquiring an undeniable talent to give James a chance to bring another title to Los Angeles. They've already shown they're willing to let recent lottery picks go for salary-cap flexibility.
Russell is averaging a career-high 18.0 points and 6.3 assists a game with the Brooklyn Nets after he was traded by the Lakers in 2017 to dump the ill-advised Timofey Mozgov contract. Both Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson were sent to the Cleveland Cavaliers at least year's trade deadline to give the Lakers a shot at two maximum-salaried players. Rebuffed by Paul George, who re-signed with the Thunder, the Lakers used their additional space on veterans like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson. Nance is currently at career highs in points (9.1) and rebounds (7.7) while Clarkson is at a personal-best 16.9 points per night.
The Lakers could have also retained Randle in July as a restricted free agent, but they revoked his qualifying offer to let him sign with the New Orleans Pelicans, where he, too, is having a career year with 19.9 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. However, none of those teams featuring ex-Lakers prospects have winning records this season.
Johnson and Pelinka were willing to give up on all that potential for more of the sure thing in James. After buying out Luol Deng's contract before the season, they put the team in a position to sign any of the top prospective 2019 summer free agents like Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson or Kawhi Leonard, while still keeping Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and Kuzma.
But what happens if Johnson and Pelinka can't land another star in free agency? The short-term answer would be looking to add star power via trade, with the clear target being Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans. In fact, Davis is believed to be the Lakers' top target, ahead of the potential free agents in July.
This is where Ingram's future gets murky. Given Davis is under contract through the 2019-20 season, the Lakers may need to hold off on any long-term investments this summer if the Pelicans aren't ready to trade away their franchise player. Because in that case, Los Angeles would need the leverage of cap room in 2020 to sign Davis outright.
Another season with one-year deals for a supporting cast wouldn't be ideal, but it may be necessary for the Lakers to be a real threat for Davis. Ingram is also under contract until after next season, but as a restricted free agent in 2020, he'll take up $21.8 million of the Lakers' precious cap space. Choosing between Davis and Ingram in free agency wouldn't be a difficult decision for Los Angeles, but it may not come to that. The Lakers just need to show that they're willing to sacrifice Ingram, like they did Randle this past summer, to have the threat of spending power for Davis.
Assuming Davis doesn't take the supermax from New Orleans, worth roughly $239.5 million, a trade would seem to be inevitable well before July of 2020. The Pelicans simply cannot afford to lose him without getting something valuable in return. There may not be fair value for an elite star like Davis, but to compete with other suitors, the Lakers would need to include some of their best assets, which likely would start with Ingram.
Timing is everything, but the Lakers are beholden to the Pelicans' schedule. If the opportunity arose before the Feb. 7 trade deadline, Johnson and Pelinka would certainly jump at the chance. The Davis situation is more likely to resolve in June or July, around the draft and free agency.
In the meantime, the Lakers need Ingram to deliver on the court to help the team stay afloat until James returns. The franchise has dropped to eighth in the Western Conference. Six teams below the Lakers are vying for a playoff berth, including the Pelicans, who are just 4.5 games behind.
A productive Ingram helps in the standings but also gives the Lakers a viable piece to offer for a player like Davis. With Washington Wizards guard John Wall out for the season, Los Angeles could instead consider a run at All-Star guard Bradley Beal, but Johnson and Pelinka may hesitate to give up any significant pieces that might detract from the Davis chase.
Fortunately for the Lakers, their next few games are against teams with losing records like the New York Knicks (9-29), Minnesota Timberwolves (17-21), Dallas Mavericks (18-19), Detroit Pistons (17-19), Utah Jazz (18-20), Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls (10-28). Well, it's only good news if they can win short-handed with a softer schedule, assuming James is out another week or two.
The more Ingram shows out, the brighter the Lakers' future. The question is: Will he be a part of that success or of a departed means to an end?