Sunday, Dec. 15 marked the unofficial start of the NBA trade season, as it was the first day players signed this summer became eligible to be traded. In recent years, trades have been a regular occurrence throughout the season, but with 40 percent of the league’s players on contracts they signed this past summer, this is the longest the NBA has gone without a trade (152 days) in a non-lockout season since 1968.
Now that most trade restrictions have been lifted league-wide, teams will have more freedom to make moves and get their roster closer to championship contention or, for others, improve their odds at the NBA Draft Lottery. The question is: Where do the Los Angeles Lakers fit into all of this?
The Lakers have gone 24-3 through the first two months of the NBA regular season — tied with the Milwaukee Bucks for the best record in the league. In the Western Conference, they’re 4.5 games above the No. 2 seed, the LA Clippers, in the win column.
But just because the Lakers have been good doesn’t mean they won’t try to get better. The same can be said of the other teams near the top of the standings like the Bucks, Clippers, Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers. For the Lakers specifically, though, the trade market isn’t where they’re expected to improve their roster.
The Lakers signed 12 players to new contracts this season, including four players from last year’s roster: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee, Alex Caruso and Rajon Rondo. Of those four players, three of them — Caldwell-Pope, McGee and Rondo — have implicit no-trade clauses in their contract because they re-signed on “1+1” deals. For any one of those players, agreeing to a trade would mean losing their Bird Rights when they hit free agency, which, in layman’s terms, limits how much another team can offer said player in the open market. Because of this, players collectively bargained for the ability to reject such deals.
In theory, Caldwell-Pope and his $8 million salary is a good starting point for the Lakers in trade talks, but there’s no reason to believe Caldwell-Pope would voluntarily leave Los Angeles — especially not now. Caldwell-Pope has started the last 16 games for the Lakers, and during that stretch he’s averaged 10.9 points on 51.2% shooting from the field, including 44.3% shooting from behind the arc, and posted a box plus-minus of +3.6. On the season, he’s shooting a career-high 38.6% from 3-point range on 3.1 attempts per game.
With the way Caldwell-Pope is currently playing, he could help a lot of teams that lack talent on the wing, but would he willingly leave an opportunity to compete for a championship and, most of all, the comfortability of a team he’s been with for the last three years for a slightly bigger role on another, less-talented team? Almost certainly not, and you similar cases can be made for Rondo and McGee.
Going with the assumption that Caldwell-Pope, McGee and Rondo won’t agree to a trade, the biggest contract that the Lakers can send out (excluding LeBron James and Anthony Davis) is Danny Green’s two-year, $30 million deal. Green hasn’t quite lived up to the hype offensively to start the season, but he hasn’t been bad enough for the Lakers to consider trading him just 27 games into his contract.
As for the players on smaller contracts on the team — players like Avery Bradley, Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma — it would hard to get equal or greater value back for them without including a first-round pick, which the Lakers don’t have many of after trading for Davis in July.
So if the Lakers aren’t going to improve their roster via trade this season, how will they improve it? The buyout market, most likely.
Andre Iguodala might not get bought out by the Memphis Grizzlies after all, but other players will, and when they do, it’s safe to assume the Lakers will be at the top of every free agent’s destination list.
For starters, the Lakers present a prospective free agent as good of an opportunity to win a championship as any other team in the league. But the thing that will set Los Angeles apart from other teams in the post-trade deadline market will be the money they can offer free agents.
The Lakers were granted a $1.75 million disabled player exception in September in light of the new that DeMarcus Cousins would likely miss the entirety of the 2019-20 season with a torn MCL. At the time, it was no more valuable than a veteran’s minimum contract, but that won’t be the case in February.
Unlike veteran’s minimum contracts, the disabled player exception doesn’t prorate throughout the season, so instead of a player signing a veteran’s minimum contract worth less than $500,000 in June, they could sign with the Lakers for $1.75 million. The Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets will have the opportunity to outbid the Lakers with their mid-level exceptions, but both teams are lower in the standings and, generally speaking, have lower ceilings with the talent they have.
There’s also the possibility that the Lakers do nothing, which would be fine too.
The big concern with the Lakers right now is that they don’t have another big forward to guard the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George or Giannis Antetokounmpo in a seven-game playoff series. But while that may be an issue in the regular season, it shouldn’t be as much of an issue in the postseason, when Green, James and Davis are expected to play heavy minutes.
If a difference-maker becomes available and the Lakers win the bidding war, then that’s great. But if the regular season ends and the roster looks the same as it did on opening night, that shouldn’t be seen as a total failure.