Buyout Candidates Lakers Should Target to Get LeBron James to the Playoffs

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterFebruary 21, 2019

Toronto Raptors' Serge Ibaka (9) defends New York Knicks' DeAndre Jordan (6) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, in New York. The Raptors won 104-99. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Help may be on the way for the 28-29 Los Angeles Lakers, but whoever comes to the aid of LeBron James and Co. won't be their top choice.

The question now is: Will it be a smart choice?

By shipping out Michael Beasley, Svi Mykhailiuk and Ivica Zubac before the trade deadline for Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala, the Lakers opened one roster spot. After failed runs at Markieff Morris and Enes Kanter (off to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers, respectively), the Lakers may still add a 15th man.

The obvious name linked to the Lakers comes directly from James' mouth.  

"I think it would be great to have Carmelo Anthony be on the Lakers," he told ESPN's Rachel Nichols in December. "I believe Melo can still play the game."

But is Anthony the best choice for the Lakers? The Houston Rockets chose to exile the former All-Star—a poor fit on a team that prioritizes three-point shooting and getting to the basket—for months before trading him to the Chicago Bulls, who in turn waived him.

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

Anthony wasn't necessarily bad for the Rockets, with whom he averaged 13.4 points per game. But his 32.8 percent shooting from three-point range in 10 appearances didn't cut it. Anthony wasn't to blame for the Rockets' slow start to the season, but they didn't view him as the solution, either.

More than anything, the Lakers need to improve defensively. Anthony figures to make the Hall of Fame because of his impressive career as a scorer, but he's never been known as a high-level two-way player.

A better fit would be New York Knicks center DeAndre Jordan, who the Lakers are eyeing before the March 1 playoff-eligibility waiver deadline.

The Dallas Mavericks sent Jordan to New York in the Kristaps Porzingis trade. With the 11-47 Knicks focused on (or tanking for) the draft lottery, why wouldn't they let him out of his contract to join a contender?

The Knicks recently bought out guard Wesley Matthews, who then signed with the Indiana Pacers, but Jordan remains in New York.

ESPN.com's Tim Bontemps tweeted one theory on why the Knicks may hold on to Jordan: "He's also good friends with Kevin Durant—whom the Knicks are hoping to land as a free agent this summer."

That may be true, but if the Knicks are able to land two star free agents this summer, they won't have the room to pay Jordan anywhere close to his current $22.9 million salary.

Jordan still has a home in Los Angeles, but there's no guarantee he'd pick the Lakers should the Knicks set him free. Other teams in better playoff position may be able to beat out James and the Lakers, but Jordan would be worth relegating starter JaVale McGee to the bench.

With Lonzo Ball still recovering from his left ankle sprain, the Lakers could use help at point guard. A veteran like Jarrett Jack on a 10-day contract might make sense. If Ball's return is not imminent, they could target a longer-term option such as Michael Carter-Williams, Milos Teodosic or Mario Chalmers. But with James and Brandon Ingram sharing de facto point duties in the starting lineup and Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson coming off the bench, the Lakers may just wait for Ball's return. They're also loaded on the wing, limiting their need for players such as former Lakers Nick Young and Corey Brewer.

Brandon Dill/Associated Press

Center is the most obvious need with Zubac now on the Clippers and 36-year-old reserve Tyson Chandler best suited for short minutes. Muscala may be able to fit in as a big shooter, but he isn't a significant defensive presence like Jordan. Other big men who may be available include Greg Monroe, Marcin Gortat, Ike Anigbogu and Zach Randolph.

The best use of the Lakers' last roster spot might be signing a veteran with at least 10 years of experience to a partially guaranteed two-year contract. That could give them additional salary ballast should they reengage the New Orleans Pelicans in Anthony Davis trade discussions this summer.

For instance, if the Lakers can convince Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving or Jimmy Butler to come to L.A. on a maximum contract starting at roughly $32.7 million, they could still reach the $21.6 million needed in outgoing salary to make a Davis trade legal by packaging Mo Wagner, Isaac Bonga, Ball, Ingram and this theoretical newly signed veteran earning $2.5 million for 2019-20.

Given what the Lakers reportedly offered for Davis at the deadlinecombinations that included Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Ball and Ingram—they may not be able to pull back on what they'd send out for Davis. It would help if the Boston Celtics lose Irving to the Knicks and move on from the Davis chase. If the Celtics do bow out of the running, the Lakers might have a greater chance to hold on to Kuzma or Hart if they add another veteran to their roster now.

Ball and Ingram appear to be necessary sacrifices for salary-matching purposes, but if the Lakers are unable to lure another star in free agency, they may be able to keep one of the two (or both) by using their cap space to make an unbalanced trade with the Pelicans. Or if New Orleans insists, L.A. could end up sending all of its young prospects for Davis.

That last roster spot may go to a player who can help the Lakers get to and compete in the playoffs like Jordan. Or they may go with someone James believes in, like Anthony, even if it isn't clear how his skill set would help them given their recent defensive woes. Perhaps L.A. will focus on the bigger picture and make a move that is less about today's roster and more about the financial flexibility it may need to build a superteam.

Either way, the Lakers need help ASAP. After a week off for the All-Star break, they resume play on Thursday night, hosting the Houston Rockets (33-24) at Staples Center. The 10th-place Lakers have 25 games to make up ground in the Western Conference playoff race.

That won't be easy, as their upcoming schedule features dangerous opponents like the Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Toronto Raptors and two against the Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks. The Lakers will need to catch at least two of the Sacramento Kings (30-27), Los Angeles Clippers (32-27), San Antonio Spurs (33-26) and Utah Jazz (32-25) to earn a playoff spot.

Further complicating matters, Ball still has yet to practice after sitting out the past four weeks with an ankle sprain. Injuries have been the story of LeBron James' debut season with the Lakers, as he recently made his own return from a groin strain that he suffered Christmas Day against the Warriors.

James hasn't missed the playoffs since the 2004-05 season. He’s been to eight straight Finals, winning three titles. Even with all the Lakers' injury issues, it would be stunning to see a James-led team finish the season without a playoff berth.


Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.