Unless you were hiding under a rock yesterday, you are aware of two rather large developments that reverberated throughout the basketball world. One was that Chris Paul saga finally ended with him going to the Clippers in return for Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Chris Kaman, and Minnesota's 2012 first round pick. The other was that Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski dropped the interesting bombshell that the Magic were taking Dwight Howard off the trade market and intend to see how the season goes with him at the helm until the trade deadline. So in short, the Lakers' top two trade targets are, at least for the moment, out of their reach, and in the aftermath of the Lamar Odom trade to Dallas, this obviously has ignited a bit of a crisis of confidence in Laker Land.
As such, is it panic time? Should we throw our championship aspirations in the bag? Hardly. This isn't to say that more moves aren't needed, or that Kupchak shouldn't find a use for the Sasha Vujacic traded-player exception (TPE) that will expire on December 16 -- and not today, according to Hoopsworld's Eric Pincus -- but rather the Lakers' biggest strengths haven't diminished to the point in which the Lakers suddenly shouldn't be taken seriously, or are in any danger of not finishing among the West's top seeds. After the jump, we'll review the particulars behind the Howard trade saga, go more into detail on how the Odom TPE can be utilized, and look for what the team can do before the start of the season.
So, as was noted above, the Magic pulled Dwight Howard from the trade block even with a huge four team deal in the works in which the Nets would ship five (!) first round picks out to have Gerald Wallace and Brook Lopez come to the Magic in exchange for Howard, Hedo Turkoglu, and Chris Duhon. Obviously, the Magic weren't that enamored with the return, seeing as Howard isn't a Net right now. So what is the reason? First, here's Woj:
The Magic still prefer what the Lakers could offer in any possible future trade talks, with a possible package of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum more attractive on a pure talent basis. The Nets have been far more aggressive in the pursuit of Howard than the Lakers, who are usually methodical in trade discussions.
Cool beans. Let's also hear from Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel:
Magic trying to smoke out L.A. with Nets trade tease. Lakers didn't bite. Magic want PGasol and ABynum for DHoward. Now what? Wait.
In other words, what does this tell us? First, a Gasol/Bynum offer is essentially the Lakers' "auto-win" button. If at any point until the trade deadline, the Lakers find it acceptable to part with both of their starting bigs in order to get Howard, they can do so. Yours truly wouldn't mind doing so if the Lakers have a trade lined up for a starting four like Anderson Varejao or Paul Millsap with the Odom TPE and if Nelson is coming back in that trade, but that's besides the point. The more important underlying issue is that both the Lakers, whom Woj notes are quite "methodical" in these discussions, and the Magic know that the Lakers can put the best offer on the table, and that there's really no point in doing so until more dominoes fall before the trade deadline. The Lakers are under no pressure no make a trade until that point, and clearly, the Magic don't care much for a trade that nets them an overrated young center in Lopez and an aging forward who depends on his athleticism in Wallace.
So why is there so much hubbub right now? It's because these discussions are driven almost entirely by the Nets, who as we noted yesterday, lost their backup free agent option in Nene to the Nuggets, and are suddenly faced with the notion of going into the season with essentially last year's lineup plus Deron Williams that still wasn't all that good. SI's Chris Mannix reports that the Nets are in discussions with Andre Kirilenko, who feels like a natural fit for Russian Mikhail Prokhorov's team, and undoubtedly, they are attempting to re-sign forward Kris Humphries, who had a career year last season. As our sister site Nets Daily notes, however, the Nets are trying to sign these players to big one year deals to preserve their flexibility for next year's free agent class. Are either amenable to doing so when Kirilenko possibly has a multi-year offer from the Kings and Humphries risks losing the allure of his career year? Who knows, but the calculus in these trade discussions could shift if the Nets head into the season with a bare-bones roster bereft of talent and are barely a .500 team near the deadline. Does Howard still want to go to New Jersey at that point?
Moreover, going into the season with Bynum allows the Lakers to feature him in Brown's San Antonio offense, which will give him a much greater opportunity to showcase his talents, and in a West without Yao Ming and the immense Chinese vote, there stands a very real chance that Bynum could be starting opposite Howard at the All-Star Game in Orlando. In other words, by the time the deadline rolls around, Bynum could be a much more attractive trade piece to the Magic, the Nets could have cooled as a possibility for Howard, and the Lakers would find themselves in a much stronger position. Is that an optimistic scenario? Certainly. But it behooves Kupchak to see it played out, and for Otis Smith to see how the trade market changes as the season progresses. As was noted above, the Lakers have the means to get Howard at any time with a Gasol/Bynum package and as the Nets have nothing to match that, both the Lakers and the Magic have a vested interest in seeing this saga through.
Of course, in the short-term for the Lakers, the elephant in the room is what to do with the big $8.9 million TPE they acquired in the Odom trade. The answer I would give at the moment, however, is...nothing. Kupchak certainly should be asking around the league about certain players and their availability, but it is important to remember that a TPE is essentially another form of cap space. As well-managed teams are apt to show, cap space is best used opportunistically, offering a haven to teams who need to divest themselves of a player for payroll, fit, or chemistry reasons. Essentially, you are renting your cap space out to teams, and when a sufficiently good offer arises, you take advantage of it. That obviously isn't the answer that most fans want to hear after losing the fourth best player on the team, but it remains the best course of action the team can move forward with. As with the Howard situation above, there are an awful lot of things that can happen before the deadline and the Lakers will have a solid position from which to take advantage of it.
That calculus is obviously different for the Vujacic TPE considering that it expires tomorrow, and we reviewed some possibilities with its use yesterday. The Jamal Crawford deal in particular looks interesting, considering that it will expire before the onset of the harsher luxury tax and likely give the Lakers two solid years of production for a low price. Outside of using the TPE, it is unlikely that other opportunities for improving at the guards exists unless the team wants to take a flyer on Baron Davis, who will be sidelined for at least two months with back problems, assuming he makes it out of secondary waivers. Davis certainly could be an upgrade, especially if his shooting numbers from Cleveland (41.4 3P%) hold up under greater scrutiny, but two months is a long time to wait since it will take him at least a few weeks after that to get back into basketball shape, become familiar with the systems on both sides of the floor, and earn some real rotation minutes. That noted, you could say that whatever he gives in the regular season could be immaterial compared to what he could provide in the playoffs, and he would be a low risk acquisition either way.
As for the backup two guard spot, it looks increasingly likely that the team intends to hand off duties there to a platoon of Devin Ebanks, who has been groomed for the spot, and Jason Kapono or possibly Andrew Goudelock in spot situations. Kobe, notably, was effusive in his praise for Ebanks two days ago, and if his offensive game has come along, he could provide decent rotation minutes. The only other possibility is that the team takes a liking to Elijah Millsap, who was a solid D-League player for the D-Fenders, the Lakers' affiliate, and has a fairly sound game in addition to being built like a bull akin to his brother Paul. Either way, the Lakers are due for some more athleticism on the wings, and whether it is Ebanks or Millsap taking more rotation minutes at the spot, the end result should be positive for the team.
Finally, the frontcourt situation received a boost two days ago with the signing of Josh McRoberts, and the news that power forward Troy Murphy was working at the Lakers' facility. Murphy had a terrible year for the Nets and the Celtics, but he was inexplicably buried on the bench in New Jersey so they could trot out Johan Petro and by the time he was freed via buyout to go to the Celtics, his confidence and play had mostly been shot. In a clear bench role in which he will have defined minutes instead of being jerked around as he was all of last year, I imagine that he will perform much better. He is only one year removed from a 18.07 PER season, which is borderline All-Star play, and he brings a tantalizing Kevin Love-esque combination of sweet outside shooting and activity on the boards when playing at his best. For the minimum, he would be a solid addition to the Lakers' frontcourt rotation.
Past Murphy, it is likely that the Lakers add a fifth big so they avoid having a three man frontcourt rotation of Gasol, McRoberts, and Murphy for a brutal back-to-back-to-back set they'll have to begin the season. While the team likely would have been fine going into the season with Derrick Caracter filling that role, his injury unfortunately doesn't bode well for his future as a Laker. The Lakers don't need to shoot for the moon for this spot, especially considering that a fifth big will likely be on a suit on most nights when Bynum returns, so signing someone like Joel Przybilla, DJ Mbenga, or Jason Smith would be fine for the Lakers' purposes. Is a rotation of Gasol, Bynum, McRoberts, Murphy, and Przybilla better than one with Odom? Certainly not, but there are caveats. If you want to feature Bynum both because he's prepared for the role after training all summer to get in better shape and since we want to increase his value in a Howard trade, then you have to play him over 34 minutes a night, which reduces Odom to a 15-20 minute role since he's not taking minutes away from Gasol. Meanwhile, having McRoberts and Murphy, both of whom can play off Bynum because of their shooting, aren't bad players in backup roles, as they only add to how he can open space for himself on the block.
Altogether, the message, as it was yesterday, is patience. We all want some recompense for Odom immediately and to go into the season with more confidence, but there is little for the Lakers to gain by rash action right now and a potentially big reward by seeing how the season plays out until the deadline. At worst, the Lakers find themselves in the same spot they are in right now and are forced into offering Gasol and Bynum for Howard. However, with both the Howard trade saga and the Odom TPE things that could produce very different results in the long-term, it behooves the Lakers to wait and see what can be garnered at the trade deadline. And before then, the Lakers will still have one of the league's best frontcourts between Gasol and Bynum, a certain Kobe Bryant on the roster, and a system that should work well for the strengths of the aforementioned players. The last few days have not been kind to the Lakers franchise or their fans, but this is not the end. Far from it.
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