It’s January, and you know what that means: It’s officially Lakers trade rumors season. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be hearing near-constant buzz about the relative availability of Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Ivica Zubac, Moe Wagner and everyone else on the Lakers not named LeBron.
Get your critical thinking caps ready to determine what makes sense and what is just anonymous posturing, because we finally have our first evidence that the hot stove has been turned on.
In a larger post exploring the relative trade value of Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal, Ken Berger of Bleacher Report dropped a couple nuggets about how the Lakers are approaching the trade deadline, and who might or might not be available:
In the West, the Lakers have to be part of the conversation because of the LeBron James factor, though it’s not clear to rival executives whom they’re willing to trade in any deal and whom they aren’t.
”At one point a month ago, they were dangling Lonzo [Ball] a little bit, but now they don’t want to trade him,” one of the execs said.
The Lakers not wanting to trade Ball anymore makes sense. The sophomore point guard has been playing significantly better of late, as over the last 12 games since LeBron James got hurt Ball is shooting a team-high 38.9 percent from behind the arc on six(!!!) attempts per game, while also stuffing the box score 12.9 points, 6.9 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game.
Ball has additionally shown an increased aggressiveness at getting to the rim and truly seems to have figured out how much more effective the Lakers can be if he runs the offense. If he’s really turned a corner, a 21-year-old playing like this is certainly worth holding on to.
However, Ball reportedly being off the table doesn’t mean the Lakers aren’t looking to make moves to upgrade their roster. The team is likely not looking to take on any long-term deals in order to preserve salary cap space for this summer — which complicates any potential transactions — but according to Berger, they are making a few of their younger players “available” in an effort to upgrade their roster right now:
Josh Hart, Ivica Zubac and Moritz Wagner are available, rival executives say, while pretty much everyone else is off the table.
“Available” is an interesting semantic choice, because in reality, how many NBA players aren’t “available” if the right deal comes along? The Lakers may be saying Lonzo isn’t an option to interested teams, but you have to bet that would change if, say, New Orleans was willing to take just him for Anthony Davis. Doesn’t that technically make him “available?”
So using the loosest definition of “available,” it’s no surprise it includes the players above. Hart was a steal at the 30th-overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, but of course the Lakers would be willing to move him for a meaningful upgrade. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re actively offering him or trying to give him away, even if he’s struggled over the 12 games since James got hurt. It just at the very least means he isn’t considered untouchable, which, duh.
The same goes for Zubac. As nice of a story as his recent resurgence is, the reality is that Zubac has half a season left on his contract before the Lakers have to choose whether or not to make a $1.9 million qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent this summer, or to let him walk. All that is to say, if the Lakers could get a better player right now for Zubac, who might not be in their long-term plans, they would have to consider it, even if Zubac’s play and the Lakers’ other centers dealing with health issues hasn’t made that calculus as easy as it was a little over a month ago.
My editor is going to get mad at me for burying the lede, but the actually interesting name here is Wagner. The Lakers just picked him in the first round of the 2018 NBA Draft, and while it’s again worth noting the “available” doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve given up on him or are actively seeking to move off of him, even in the most charitable view it’s not the most encouraging sign for how they feel about his stock moving forward, as first-round picks usually get a slightly longer leash than this.
Whether any of these guys get moved will likely come down to how interesting of an upgrade the Lakers are offered heading into the deadline, and what the contracts of the players other teams are making available look like.
If, hypothetically, the Orlando Magic were to call and offer Nikola Vucevic and the one-year and $12.7 million remaining on his contract for a package centered on these players, the Lakers would surely have to consider it just because of how much the fringe All-Star could help them right now as a bruising screener who can also space the floor, but doesn’t jeopardize their cap sheet this summer and is actually a decent fallback option if they don’t get the players at the top of their list of targets in July.
But outside of a perfect deal like that where the Lakers are getting a massive short-term upgrade without hurting their chances at a star this summer, it seems unlikely the team would be in a rush to deal Hart, Wagner, Zubac or anyone else. As always, it’s more likely this team gets a full one-year audition to see how they fit with James — and in the playoff pressure cooker — before the front office decides what they want the next iteration of the team to look like over the summer.
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