It seems like just a few weeks ago the Los Angeles Lakers, on the tail end of a nine-game losing streak, held a team meeting to give players a chance to air out their grievances following reports of disconnect between the players and the organization.
Wait, that was only a few weeks ago?
Winning fixes everything, and the Los Angeles Lakers (19-30) have won seven of their last 10 games, five of which have come without their starting point guard, Lonzo Ball. Prior to their recent streak, the Lakers were 0-8 without their prized rookie and were being outscored by an average of 17 points per game, per StatMuse.
While some of this can be attributed to the Lakers’ defense tightening back up, Luke Walton also deserves credit for the strides he’s made as a head coach over these past 10 games. Granted, it’s a small sample size, but the changes Walton has made to his rotations are already showing results, like his decision to move Julius Randle back into the starting lineup.
Since Randle was inserted back into the starting lineup, the Lakers are 8-8. As a starter, Randle is averaging 15.9 points on 54.8 percent shooting from the field to go along with 9.4 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game.
Brook Lopez has also seen a spike in production as a result of Randle’s presence in the starting lineup, shooting 33 percent from behind the arc after shooting closer to 25 percent in the two months prior. With Randle and Lopez in the starting lineup together, the Lakers are 8-4.
Who knew that pairing two players whose strengths cover each other’s weaknesses would work so well?
The Lakers have also brought their bench back from the dead, which is just to say Jordan Clarkson is playing well again. Like, really well.
Over his last five games, Clarkson is averaging 25.8 points, 6.3 assists, 5 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. Per stats.nba.com, the only other players averaging at least 25 points, six assists, five rebounds and one steal per game during that time are Russell Westbrook, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry.
Clarkson likely won’t sustain this level of play for much longer, but his recent run suggests that his cold stretch in December was more of a slump than a complete regression, particularly as a playmaker. Jordan already has more games with five or more assists this season than he did last season, including his first game with 10 assists.
With Clarkson and Randle playing some of the best basketball of their young careers, should the Lakers reconsider being sellers at the trade deadline? Absolutely.
President of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka have made it clear they want to remain flexible for this upcoming summer when marquee free agents like DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, LeBron James and Paul George hit the open market, but how much flexibility is too much flexibility?
The Lakers, once they renounce the rights of Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and waive smaller non-guaranteed contracts like those of Tyler Ennis and possibly Ivica Zubac, will have a total of $63.1 million committed in salary this summer, which includes Randle’s $12.4 million cap hold.
With the league salary cap projected to be around $102 million, the Lakers would still have roughly $37 million in spending room, which is enough for one max player, whether it be James, whose contract would start at $35.7 million, or George, whose contract would start at $30.6 million.
They could expand that cap space to approximately $56.8 million by stretching Luol Deng and renouncing Randle’s rights, but if Randle makes it past the deadline, it’s because the Lakers are planning on re-signing him, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks.
One max free agent and Randle, who won’t turn 24 until the start of next season, is one hell of a backup plan to striking out on two max free agents.
Of course, if the Lakers find themselves in a position to sign two max, superstar players like George and James, that’s when they should start making the necessary moves to facilitate that. But trading away young talent, like they’ve done in the past and are reportedly planning on doing ahead of the trade deadline, when there’s no guarantee they can put that cap space to good use, would be nonsensical.
Clarkson, Randle and Nance are far from the perfect players, but with a combined 10 years of NBA experience, all with the purple and gold, they still have plenty of room to grow with the team, and so far they’re not doing to shabby.
Teams will be able to make trades from now until the trade deadline on Feb. 8 at 9 p.m. PST. Unless a trade comes along that would put the Lakers closer to contention as soon as next season, they should lay low.