With the trade deadline on Thursday, the Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in a similar position as the past few years: In possession a surfeit of motley veterans who might be of use to a contending squad and are blocking the front office from evaluating younger options that have more relevance to the team's future. For the most part, the Lakers have elected to not play the asset management game in clearly lost seasons, allowing free agents with potential value to walk in lieu of dealing them for even token returns. Perhaps the market for these veterans was too weak to warrant consideration at the time, but suffice it to say, the Lakers have not been as aggressive in this area as many of their peers, especially considering the rebuilding process the team has been undertaking.
The factors that inform the team's calculus this season, however, may change how the front office views this particular deadline. This is in no small part because of the presence of Lou Williams, who the team signed to a very affordable three-year, $21 million contract last offseason following a Sixth Man of the Year-winning campaign. Lou very well might be the most valuable asset the Lakers have made available to trade at the deadline these past three years, even surpassing Pau Gasol's trade heft in 2014, due to his contract structure. Although Pau was (and is) arguably a better player, his contract at the time -- a gargantuan $19.2 million expiring deal -- was not conducive to receiving good value for him, a problem that bedevils Roy Hibbert's trade prospects at the moment. Finding an ideal matching salary for deals of that size is not easy and the effort required is usually not commensurate with what that player can contribute in a half-season cameo role.
As is apparent, Lou's contract does not present any such issues. Indeed, quite the opposite is true: Lou's contract vests him with positive value, as courtesy of the cap increase, Lou's contract will only take up around 8 percent of the upcoming projected cap of $90 million. In addition, teams won't be faced with the prospect of giving up a long-term asset, namely a pick or a cost-controlled young player, for a rental, or at the very least, an asset that doesn't completely discharge its value immediately. Since the notion that Lou will keep up an above average level of play on the offensive end in his age-30 and age-31 seasons isn't outlandish, trading for Lou gives you 2.5 seasons of a solid sixth man that doesn't overly impinge on your cap flexibility, something a playoff team would very well see as valuable moving forward.
Insofar as the Lakers are concerned, that Lou could garner the team a real asset is valuable in and of itself, but moving him also helps to nip in the bud what could be a future glut in the backcourt. This could manifest in several ways, the first of which we discussed a week ago in relation to the draft, namely if the team's set on taking Providence's Kris Dunn should they end up with the third-overall pick. This also applies, moreover, to the Lakers' options with their second-rounder currently at No. 32, as several of the better options available at the spot are guards Lou would push down in the rotation, including but not limited to Iowa State's Monte Morris, Oregon State's Gary Payton II, and Kentucky's Tyler Ulis. Even under particularly sunny projections of the Lakers' offseason, the team will still very much be in a rebuilding phase and thus ensuring that the Lakers' young players get adequate development time should be a principal goal of the team next season.
Lou also stands in the way of a number of possible free agent acquisitions that could pair better with D'Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson in the backcourt than he does. The most prominent of these options is Los Angeles native DeMar DeRozan, who the Lakers have been linked to in past reports as a possible recipient of the gobs and gobs of cap space the team will have to throw around this summer. Despite possessing throwback game by modern standards, DeRozan is having the best season of his career and his heavy usage with the ball in his hands could conceivably work with the off-ball play Russell and Clarkson have flashed this season. Similar logic could also apply for Mike Conley, who would force Russell and Clarkson off the ball even more but it's conceivable that the trio could work out. Another option is Evan Fournier, who might be squeezed out by the backcourt rotation in Orlando, and while not nearly as impressive of a player as DeRozan, his shooting and youth would pair nicely with the Lakers' current core.
Maximizing the Lakers' free agent gains is particularly important here because so much of the team's rebuilding process is hedged on experiencing at least some success in that area. The team has done a lot of work to clean its cap sheet in preparation for this offseason, and while they shouldn't sign players just for the sake of it, they also should maximize their chances for grabbing as many contributors as they can. At the moment, assuming that the Lakers fully intend to bring back Clarkson, Lou's presence precludes two entire position groups from the team's consideration in free agency. It'd be one thing for the team to bury a cost-controlled young player on the roster in favor of a big free agent acquisition, but Lou is an eminently win-now option and burying him would be highly unproductive.
Now, all of this is an argument to trade Lou but not necessarily one for trading him at the deadline tomorrow: The draft and free agent issues can be resolved if Lou is dealt sometime in the summer. Lou's value now and what it will be in the summer likely won't be terribly different unless his play takes a nosedive to finish the season, so the return would likely be very dependent on the market. In the summer, teams will have a surplus of cap space that Lou possibly could be absorbed into for a team that missed out on the premier free agents and would prefer not to overpay someone. On the flip side, playoff teams could conceivably want Lou's bench scoring immediately to accomplish short-term objectives and could pay a premium for that right now
We can debate the relative merits of whether the market now or in the summer might be more receptive to Lou, but the question of timing perhaps more relevant here is what trading him now permits the team to do for the remainder of the season. As one might expect, this largely revolves around maximizing the amount of time that Russell and Clarkson spend on the court together moving forward. Considering how the two play together is a key aspect of the team's future prospects, getting more of a sample size on how they work together before the summer rolls around would be highly beneficial for obvious reasons. In addition, Lou's absence would also give the front office an opportunity to spin the asset management wheel and possibly call up a D-League option in the backcourt or similar depending on how the roster settles post-deadline. Injuries forced this eventuality the past two seasons but doing so now would still be advisable.
Altogether, the Lakers should be actively exploring the trade market for Lou since at some point or another, the team very well might have to move on from him on short notice. While the notion that both the draft and free agency could proceed without another guard presenting himself as an option for the roster, chances are that Lou's going to be right in the middle of a backcourt glut that can only be resolved by trading him. Combined with the genuine value that Lou likely has on the trade market and lack of utility Lou provides toward the team's future core, this should be an avenue of inquiry that should be well trod upon by the time the deadline rolls around tomorrow.