LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers (40-12) may have a four-game advantage in the standings over the Los Angeles Clippers (37-17), but the Clippers, who are undefeated in two matchups with the Lakers, upgraded at last week’s trade deadline by acquiring Marcus Morris Sr. from the New York Knicks.
"There's no way the Lakers beat the Clippers in a seven-game series," an Eastern Conference executive said.
Perhaps, but even though it's too late for the Lakers to make trades, the franchise still has time to improve its roster before the playoffs. The most obvious move was adding Darren Collison, a point guard who would have provided LeBron James with another ball-handler, playmaker and scorer. Collison retired suddenly over the summer, flirted with a return and was seen courtside with Lakers owner Jeanie Buss at Staples Center last week before declining.
"That's a blow," a former general manager said. "I'm not sure the Lakers can find a better fit than Collison."
If veteran Rajon Rondo can consistently hit outside shots as he did Monday night, scoring 23 points while hitting four three-pointers against Phoenix, the Lakers would be just fine. Unfortunately, he's not a steady shooter, hitting only 21.7 percent of his three-point attempts in January.
"There's a reason Rondo dominated the Suns: They weren't guarding him," the former general manager said. "Teams want him to shoot."
But the Lakers don't have anyone else who can consistently handle the ball under duress, outside James. Avery Bradley is probably ill-suited if Clippers guard Patrick Beverley picks him up with full-court pressure. At least Rondo has some of the skills needed to get the Lakers into their offense—more so than Alex Caruso, Quinn Cook, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bradley.
"He overdribbles," said a Western Conference executive. "The team needs another guard who can handle but who can also play off of LeBron as a shooter. That's not Rondo."
The Lakers have another issue in defending big, strong wings, as they struggle to contain the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam and Ben Simmons.
"Kawhi is too strong for Danny Green. [Kyle] Kuzma can't do anything against him. We've seen what he does to KCP," the former general manager said. "LeBron is really the Lakers' best option defensively. They're going to have to sacrifice in a series and put LeBron on Kawhi."
So, James will have to be the team's primary ball-handler, playmaker, scorer and defender in a series against the Clippers? That doesn't sound like a winning formula.
The Lakers are short two players to viably compete against the Clippers: a point guard and a wing defender. Barring another change of heart from Collison, what are the options?
The Buyout Market
After the trade deadline, the Lakers lost the opportunity to grab noted defender Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, as the Dallas Mavericks were quick to add him. He was released by the Charlotte Hornets, as was Marvin Williams, who jumped at the chance to join the Eastern Conference’s top team, the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Lakers have been linked to Dion Waiters by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The 6’3”, 215-pound guard, who was recently traded from the Miami Heat to the Memphis Grizzlies, doesn't have the size to defend bigger wings and doesn't have the ball-handling skills to run the point, but politically (more so than practically), he would make sense for the Lakers as a former Rob Pelinka client (from the Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager's days as a player agent) and is a Klutch Sports client (sharing agent Rich Paul with James).
Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated mentioned both the Lakers and Clippers as potential suitors for Tyler Johnson, but the 27-year-old guard shot just 28.9 percent from three-point range in 31 games for the Suns this season.
The Hawks haven't shown any clear signs they'll cut guard Jeff Teague, who is backing up Trae Young in Atlanta.
Meanwhile, Isaiah Thomas was waived by the Clippers after a deadline trade, but he and James did not mesh well in Cleveland. A better backcourt option might be Matthew Dellavedova, who won a title with James in 2015-16 and is in the final year of his contract with the Cavaliers. While he used to be a high-level three-point shooter, Dellavedova is at just 16.4 percent this year in a limited role.
Recently waived Tim Frazier (Detroit Pistons) and Trey Burke (Philadelphia 76ers) may not be big enough upgrades over what the Lakers already have.
An unconventional option might be Evan Turner, who may get bought out by the Minnesota Timberwolves after a trade from the Hawks. He could fill the Lakers' needs as both a playmaker and a big wing (6'6").
Still, "I'm not sure Turner is a good enough defender to put on Leonard," the former general manager said.
But if there's one ideal player for the Lakers on the buyout market, it's former Clippers forward Maurice Harkless, who went from Los Angeles to the Knicks in the Morris deal. Harkless is arguably the best all-around defender on the list and has behind-the-scenes knowledge of the Clippers locker room and practice floor.
Harkless also grew up in New York. Playing for the Knicks may hold enough sentimental value for Harkless to finish the year and his contract there—with the possibility of re-signing long-term (although the team seems to be focusing on making a run at Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021). If he won’t get significant minutes in New York, with the Knicks unlikely to make a playoff run, Harkless may instead prefer to join a contender.
If the Lakers can guarantee him a significant role, along with their $1.75 million disabled player exception from DeMarcus Cousins, perhaps Pelinka can convince him to push for an exit (assuming the Knicks are even willing to let Harkless go down this road).
Harkless would immediately change the Lakers’ complexion in a playoff series against the Clippers, relieving James and the Lakers' otherwise overmatched defenders against Leonard. That he's a reasonably capable three-point shooter (37 percent on the season) would be a bonus.
Other Free Agents
Excluding centers, given the Lakers' wealth at the position with JaVale McGee, Dwight Howard, Anthony Davis and, potentially making a return near April, Cousins, the franchise could turn to a long list of free agents to bolster the playoff run.
Stein also reported the Lakers are expected to look at James' former Cleveland teammate, JR Smith. Smith isn't a playmaker or an ideal defender to challenge Leonard, but he is a proven shooter and scorer.
Jamal Crawford will turn 40 years old in March, but the accomplished guard poured in 51 points in his final game with the Suns in April 2019. He wouldn't help much defensively, but he would give the team another backcourt scoring option.
Others potentially available could include Corey Brewer, Joe Johnson, Jeff Green, Jonathon Simmons, Trevor Booker, Tyrone Wallace, Nik Stauskas, Shelvin Mack, Jeremy Lin and Iman Shumpert.
Some are playing overseas and may have clearance issues in trying to return to the NBA prematurely.
One player in particular might be a "break glass in case of emergency" fit in Lance Stephenson, who previously played under head coach Frank Vogel in Indiana and alongside James last season with the Lakers. He's not a point guard, though he has served as one at times throughout his career. He’s not the defender he used to be, but he would challenge both Leonard and Paul George (his former teammate) with gusto.
"It's not the craziest idea I've ever heard," the former general manager said.
Stephenson is with the Liaoning Flying Leopards in China, but per ESPN'sJonathan Givony, the Chinese Basketball Association has "postponed" its season "indefinitely" because of the new coronavirus outbreak in the country. It's unclear exactly how that would impact Stephenson and several former players should they seek a letter of clearance to rejoin the NBA.
If the Lakers added both Stephenson and Harkless, they'd give the Clippers a much tougher time defensively. While Collison would be the best choice at guard, he doesn't appear to have his heart in a return.
The Lakers have 15 players under standard NBA contract, which means they need to cut to add. Troy Daniels would probably be the first to go. If the franchise adds a second free agent, it would probably have to cut Quinn Cook (who is due $1 million guaranteed next season) or Jared Dudley. The prospect of a return likely keeps Cousins safe, as does his close tie to Davis, which dates back to their time together with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Rookie Talen Horton-Tucker has played fewer minutes than Cook, Daniels and Dudley this season, but he is represented by Klutch Sports and is under contract for next season at $1.5 million. The team also sent $2.2 million and a second-round pick to the Orlando Magic to acquire Horton-Tucker's rights last June.
That's in part why the Collison appearance at Staples Center was so awkward. If he joined the team, he would be taking someone’s spot. But clearly the Lakers are considering a change, and if that's what gets the franchise past the Clippers and all comers in the Western Conference, the corresponding roster cuts will be a difficult but necessary sacrifice.
ESPN Senior writer and podcaster Zach Lowe returns to The Full 48 with Howard Beck to discuss Kobe Bryant’s game and legacy, missed trade deadline opportunities by Miami, Orlando and Oklahoma City, buyout season, and the plights of Philadelphia 76ers and Houston Rockets.