LOS ANGELES — Has the panic subsided surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers? Will Darren Collison fill the hole competing executives see in the team's roster?
After losing just three games through Dec. 15, the Lakers hit a slump, dropping four in a row, including a late collapse Christmas Day against the Los Angeles Clippers.
The first "drama" of the season hit soon after, with Kyle Kuzma's trainer, Clint Parks, sounding off on Instagram with criticism of LeBron James and praise of Clippers star Kawhi Leonard. Naturally, fans began discussing potential Kuzma trade destinations.
Both James and Kuzma downplayed the incident, and the Lakers (27-7) have since reeled off three straight wins to remain atop the Western Conference. Only the Milwaukee Bucks (31-5), who recently beat the Lakers, boast a better record.
If anything, the Lakers' letdown reinforced James' value. He sat out the team's 128-104 loss at Staples Center to the Denver Nuggets because of a thoracic muscle strain. In his three games played during the losing streak, he averaged a triple-double but shot just 39.7 percent from the field and 20.0 percent from three.
Davis missed the game in Indiana but delivered 30.7 points per night in the three losses. He's the team's most valuable finisher, though he didn't shoot well from three (12.5 percent).
Of course, James' playmaking and dominant, efficient scoring powers the team.
The Lakers don't even run out a traditional starting point guard, going instead with Avery Bradley or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, both of whom have played mostly shooting guard throughout their NBA careers. Rajon Rondo is the only other true playmaker in the rotation, but he struggled over the four losses, shooting just 27.6 percent from the field and 21.4 percent from three.
"The Lakers need another playmaking guard. Rondo's not what he used to be. The ball sticks with him, and he doesn't defend anymore," one Eastern Conference executive said, echoing an opinion held by many execs in attendance at December's G League Showcase. "They need another point guard to help LeBron. If they're going to make a trade, that's what they need to target."
If Kuzma needs to be the bait to get that done, his $2 million salary won't easily match with some of the potential targets. Derrick Rose is earning $7.3 million with the Detroit Pistons this season (and $7.7 million next year). Dennis Schroder of the Oklahoma City Thunder is at $15.5 million for this season and next. Bogdan Bogdanovic is in the last year of his contract with the Sacramento Kings at $8.5 million. That's not to say any of the three are even available.
The most the Lakers can bring back in a trade for Kuzma is a player earning up to $3.56 million. Certainly, the team could package other players (such as Troy Daniels, Quinn Cook and/or DeMarcus Cousins) to try to get a deal done, but recent news may keep Kuzma off the trade block.
Specifically, Collison may be reconsidering his early retirement, with eyes on the Lakers or Clippers as a destination:
That could be a game-changer.
"He would be unbelievable," said one person associated with the team.
Collison, 32 years old, isn't a high-level starting point guard, but he'd be an upgrade to Rondo. Last season with the Indiana Pacers, he averaged 11.2 points and a career-high 6.0 assists per game while shooting 46.7 percent from the field and 40.7 percent from deep. A year prior, he hit a career-best 46.8 percent from three-point range. He's also a feisty, willing defender—at least he was before he retired for personal, faith-based reasons.
Should he return and choose the Lakers—he previously played with Frank Vogel in Indiana but also Doc Rivers with the Clippers—and if he's kept his conditioning up and game sharp, the team would be able to add without subtracting. A player would need to be cut for roster space, but obviously not one as valuable as Kuzma.
And there was never any guarantee that Kuzma was enough bait for the Lakers to land a playmaker next to James. They don't have any first-round picks to offer, outside of asking the New Orleans Pelicans to push back the 2021 pick sent in the Davis trade to 2022. That would undoubtedly cost additional draft considerations (at last a second-rounder) and/or cash, and that's assuming the Pelicans are even willing to consider such a move.
Outside of James and Davis, the only other Lakers earning sizable salaries, relatively speaking, are Danny Green ($14.6 million) and Caldwell-Pope ($8.1) million. Green was the team's biggest free-agent acquisition over the summer, is a key part of the Lakers' defensive identity and has been a proven playoff performer. They would need a significant return for him—far more than they're likely to get.
Caldwell-Pope is part of the Klutch Sports family, the same agency that represents James, and he can block a trade this season. That's probably a nonstarter, which is why Collison is such an important potential solution.
The Lakers would be able to focus on adding another wing defender to help deal with forwards like Paul George and Leonard, but that's not nearly as pressing an issue as upgrading at the point.
The Memphis Grizzlies are likely to trade Andre Iguodala instead of buying him out, but perhaps Memphis would also be open to moving Jae Crowder, who is in the final year of his contract at $7.8 million. But Crowder, who is a starter and may not be a consideration, is shooting just 29.2 percent from three this season.
Robert Covington of the Minnesota Timberwolves is a steadier shooter, although his 33.7 percent clip from three isn't outstanding. Perhaps a new environment would get him closer to the 37.8 percent he shot from deep last season.
A package of Cook and Cousins may work mathematically, but unless the Wolves simply want to shed the $25.1 million Covington is due the next two seasons (and have no better offers...both probably unlikely), the Lakers would need to offer something more substantial, such as Kuzma.
The risk in moving on from Kuzma is that he grows into a reliable and consistent scorer. He's struggled this year with injuries, but his 25 points Christmas Day against the Clippers were instrumental in the Lakers building an early lead. They don't have a clear-cut third scorer, and Kuzma may still develop into that in time.
The downside is counting on a third-year player to produce in his playoff debut. Kuzma may not be able to deliver at least four high-level games in a hard-fought series.
That's what the Lakers will have to ponder as the Feb. 6 trade deadline nears. And Collison certainly holds some agency; he not only must decide to return, but he also must choose the Lakers over the Clippers (or any other franchise).
If finances are the decider, the Clippers can only offer a minimum contract in the neighborhood of $950,000 after the trade deadline. The Lakers have a disabled player exception for Cousins worth $1.75 million, provided the team doesn't trade the injured center first.
With Collison possibly solving their point guard issue, do they have enough on the roster to compete for a title?
Ultimately, the Lakers are only going to go as far as James can take them, but he needs the right personnel to compete at the highest level in June. Of course, Davis is a massive upgrade from what the franchise had last season.
The Lakers are elite, at least in the standings, but the team has some flaws that need addressing to finish as the ones representing Los Angeles in the NBA Finals.
Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.