Laker Off-Season: Winds of Change?

April 10, 2022, Denver, Colorado - It’s the final game of the regular season and the Los Angeles Lakers are on the road. The Nuggets are headed to the playoffs and locked into the 6th seed, thus avoiding the play-in tournament. A sunny day in the Mile High City, that would reach nearly 60 degrees. By the late evening however the sun would set, dropping the temp to almost freezing and wind gust of more than 50 mph. An ominous forecast for the Laker future? Or more a resemblance to the season they just endured?

A spirited effort by both teams has forced the game into overtime. As the minutes switched to just seconds on the clock, Laker’s rookie forward Austin Reeves would hit a dagger three-point shot with 47 ticks left. The now five point lead proved to be insurmountable, as the Nuggets lose 146-141. It was the highest scoring effort by both teams. The aforementioned Reeves scored 31 points in the win, quite a feat for a player who’s previous high was just 19. There were smiles to be seen in purple and gold.

The only problem? This was a meaningless game. The Lakers had already been eliminated and both teams were playing their deep bench. The finale victory pushed the Laker’s season record to 33-49, their worst since 2016-2017. That was before LeBron James and Anthony Davis touched down in Los Angeles.

The Laker off-season began shortly after the victory. Unofficially, it started weeks earlier. Since then their coach, Frank Vogel, has been fired, just 17 months after winning the Championship. He has since been replaced by Darvin Ham, who was a longshot for the job not too long ago. Meanwhile, the basketball world has been buzzing about what possible options this team has going forward. Trade LeBron? Trade AD? Trade Russell Westbrook? Sit back, relax, here we go:

 

Let’s start with the biggest name, LeBron James. The 37-year-old just finished a season averaging over 30 points per game, his highest since 2006. He finished 3rd Team All-NBA, the only player to do so with a losing record this year. However, he has suited up for just 101 of the 154 games the past two seasons and we all know father time is undefeated. He’s on the books for $44M+ this season in the last year of his deal. James is eligible for a two-year $97M contract in August, but there is no indication at this point that the extension is imminent.

While most of the blame for the Laker’s season has been placed elsewhere, some have speculated if trading James is the smart move. At this point a trade seems highly unlikely although he is without a no trade clause. This franchise is built on star players and even though James is one of the oldest players in the league, he’s still a megastar. He’s floated the idea of a return to Cleveland and he’s also mentioned wanting to play with his son, earliest being 2024. But that can all be fulfilled down the road.

If I was making a prediction at this point, I think he probably signs the two-year extension, with the final year being a player option. That would tie him to Los Angeles for the next two seasons while leaving the possibility to opt out in 2024. For a franchise like this, the only way LeBron would be traded this off-season is if he asked for it. Trading him to a team he doesn’t want to play for could have major long term ramifications in the Laker’s ability to attract future stars to the franchise. Even if he was open to exploring a deal, it still seems unlikely. But for sake of conversation, let’s see how this hypothetical could go.

We all know the Lakers are in a tough spot to make radical changes to the roster. Maybe LeBron gives them a chance to reshuffle the deck this summer and doesn’t like what they come up with. He then decides to at the very least explore the idea of playing for a new team. James lets the Lakers simply know, “hey, I am open to be moved but only to these certain teams. Here is my list.”

In this scenario, I think this list would be very, very short. The assumption here would be a major market and a team that he thinks gives him a legit chance to compete for another title. I also think any team trading for him would require that extension with the intent to play the next handful of seasons for that team. The Warriors, Mavericks, Nets, 76ers, Bulls, Clippers, Heat and the Celtics all fit that criteria. Now, some of those are immediate cross-offs. No way the Lakers would send him to the Clippers or the Celtics. I don’t see him playing for Daryl Morey. LeBron has passed on playing for the Bulls before. A Pat Riley-LeBron James reunion seems unlikely as well. That leaves just three hypothetical teams.

Let’s start with Golden State, who not only has the assets the Lakers would require but they also have the salary to facilitate a deal. While there has been rumors around the league about Klay Thompson eventually wanting to play in Los Angeles, I think the more realistic large-salary departure would be Andrew Wiggins. He, like LeBron, is a free-agent after next season and any potential deal would probably require a contract extension. Would a package around him and one of the young players (not named Jordan Poole), be enough? Do the Warriors want LeBron at the max for a few years with Steph, Klay, Draymond and Poole (in 2023), already making so much money? They have been willing to pay a lot in luxury tax but this feels like a stretch. I just don’t see the Lakers sending him to their in-state rival.

So what about Dallas? A lot of Californian’s have made the move to Texas recently. While I think there could be mutual interest from LeBron and the Mavericks, I’m not sure what the package would look like. Jalen Brunson (under his new extension) and other salaries to match, with some draft compensation? For LeBron? He has shown an affinity towards Luka but it doesn’t pass the smell test.

The Nets situation is interesting. Ben Simmons has had ties to Los Angeles for awhile now (although he just sold his house there) and without getting too creative, a Simmons for LeBron trade does make some sense for both teams. Durant and Kyrie are in a win-now championship window and LeBron even at his age, fits. The Lakers in need of a younger star, could see the 25-year-old Simmons as a decent gamble.

It’s fun to get creative with trade ideas but it would all boil down to LeBron and what he decides. I don’t see any indication he would ask for a trade at this point. He has made very careful contract decisions throughout his career and typically, gets his way. I’m not sure he finishes his career as a Laker but I don’t think changing teams this off-season was in LeBron’s plans.

There’s an old saying around professional sports that “you can’t fire the players.” But if you could, most Laker fans would have given Westbrook his pink slip. While Frank Vogel was let go this off-season, a lot of pundits put the failures of Los Angeles on Westbrook.

Fortunately for him, he has a player option for the 2022-23 season at a gaudy $47M. Had he played well this season, I think there may have been a chance for him to decline the option in order to get a cheaper annually salary, but a much longer term deal. Similar to what we saw Chris Paul do in recent years. Unfortunately for him, and the Lakers, his play was so bad you can safely bet he will pick up his player option.

Reports around the league suggest the most likely trade destination is Houston. John Wall also has a $47M player option. Apparently, the Rocket’s offer of Wall for Westbrook and the Laker’s 2027 1st-round pick is still on the table. However, the Laker’s brass was uninterested in this trade a few months ago and seem even less likely to make it now.

While a buyout is a possibility, it does nothing to help the Laker’s cap situation and from a competitive standpoint doesn’t help the roster. It would only save ownership some money and like stated earlier, trying to buyout a former star might be something future players won’t look so fondly at.

Because of Westbrook’s poor play this season and his large salary number, there are very few teams interested. So is there no deal out there? Hypothetically, no, there could be a few teams interested. In similar situations like this, we have seen teams in the NBA unload the downward trending player and his expiring contract in exchange for an upgraded talent who is signed more long term. Here are a few examples of players around the league that would “fit” that idea: Gordon Hayward, Kyle Lowry and Tobias Harris.

NBA insider Marc Stein reported that the Hornets could potentially be interested in a Westbrook deal. Hayward isn’t quite the player he once was but I think some would agree he would work out better in the purple and gold this upcoming season a lot better than Westbrook. He is on the books for roughly $30M the next two seasons, and the Hornets would have to include another salary (or two) to facilitate a trade.

Lowry is nearly three years older than Russ and appears to be declining before our eyes. He has two years remaining at just under about $30M per. To make the salaries work, the Heat would also need include a significant salary, say, Duncan Robinson and his four years and $70M+. Even with Lowry dinged up and Duncan not seeing a lot of time in these playoffs, I think most would see this as improving the talent for the Lakers.

Harris is due about $38M each of the next two seasons. Like all the others mentioned, he isn’t playing quite to the caliber we have seen before but he’s only 29-year-old. He seems like he would fit better next to AD/LeBron than Russ has.

While all three of these hypothetical trades could help the Lakers next season, are any of them likely to happen? Each trade has the Laker’s taking on significant salary beyond next season. Then you got to ask yourself, how likely are the other teams to do these deals? All three are playoff contenders and the basketball “fit” with Russ coming in, at the very least should be a bit concerning. Does that off-set the ability to get the longer term deals off the books? Not to mention, who is getting the better end of the deals? Would the Lakers have to include a first round pick(s)? According to Jovan Buha of The Athletic, all the teams that are interested in a Westbrook deal are requiring significant draft compensation as a sweetener.

The other factor to these trade scenarios is the ability (or inability) for this team to trade draft picks. While they will have numerous first-round picks in the coming years (not 2022), the trade language from previous trades makes them unable to move any of them before the 2027 1st. The New Orleans Pelicans have the right to pick swap multiple of the future selections and they are unable to be moved until the slots have been decided.

Numerous reports have suggested the Lakers are unwilling to move the 2027 or 2029 1sts at this point. The 2027 was reported to be “off the table” at the trade deadline. The 2029 was unable to be moved this season as teams can only trade picks seven years into the future. It can however, be moved this off-season.

The roster construction (and inflexibility) along with the expectations, feels a bit unfair for a first-year coach. Ham, a long-time assistant and former player, beat out a few candidates that have good reputations around the league. Sources claim the Lakers wanted someone with a strong presence and voice to handle the chemistry of the locker room better. His connection to LeBron also seems to have been a factor. 

Last but surely not least, unless you are talking about games played, is Anthony Davis. Of all the Laker’s “Big 3,” Davis likely holds the most interest around the league. Despite his injuries, he’s still a special talent and would have plenty of suitors. It’s easy to forget that he is only 29-years-old. The problem I see with trading him lies more with the return. His injury history would give pause to a lot of GMs around the league and it seems unlikely the Lakers would get a return that makes them better, than a healthy Davis would. Like LeBron and Russ, his trade value at the moment is lower than what it could be even by the trade deadline.

I’m also unsure if LeBron would be too pleased with a Davis trade. He handpicked him to come to Los Angeles and they won a title together in 2020. Unless they got a package of players in return that LeBron sees as a better course to contending, I just don’t see it happening.

Take Zach LaVine for example, who has been rumored to have an interest in playing for the hometown Lakers. It’s hard to say who would need to include draft compensation to facilitate this hypothetical, but let’s explore anyways. Say the Bulls, Lakers, LaVine and AD are interested in a 1-for-1 swap. What does that look like in Los Angeles? We have already seen issues with Westbrook’s inability to play off the ball, so we are going to add LaVine, whose usage rate was actually higher? And don’t even try and envision what this squad would look like defensively. It’s not pretty.

Another rumor that seems to come from nowhere substantial is the Kyrie for Russ trade. It’s been getting a lot of buzz but has one big issue: Kevin Durant seems very unlikely to want a reunion with his former running mate. Even in the event that Kyrie wants out, I just don’t see it as realistic.

So where does that leave the purple and gold? I think the best course of action, and probably the most likely, is to run it back. Trading one of these three guys is going to have it’s own set of risks: losing future draft picks, selling low on their value and trying to make another brand new roster “fit” with a first-year head coach.

It is possible the first regular off-season since Covid gives all three of these players a much needed break. AD and LeBron, if healthy are still two very good players in this league. I also think the Lakers still have the advantage of being, well, the Lakers. Last off-season they brought in a lot of veterans on the cheap. Does Malik Monk return? Can they attract above average defenders on league minimums? Could THT and/or Kendrick Nunn be moved? Can this team survive an 82 game season without a serious influx of youth? That all remains to be seen but really wasn’t where I intended to go in this read.

You don’t have to go far to hear a fan or media member, giving their opinion of what is best for the Lakers. Trade player X. Sign player Y. Etc. (Is that what I just did?) I simply ask, what is most likely?

While the NBA off-season is always full of surprises, don’t be shocked if they run these three guys back and just fill the remaining slots with players that don’t really move the needle. The best choice, might be the only choice, to run it back with these three main guys and hope for a better result.

 

Photo Credits:

  • Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
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  • Harry How/Getty Images 
  • Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images
  • Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images 
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Patrick McLaughlin

Patrick McLaughlin

Just a basketball enthusiast who hopes you enjoy a point of view that I enjoy... https://linktr.ee/pat.d.mc

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