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Why the Mike Muscala trade never made sense for the Lakers, and looks even worse now

The Lakers traded Ivica Zubac for Mike Muscala because they thought Muscala would hit threes. That he hasn’t done so isn’t even the worst part of a deal that makes even less sense now than it did at the time.

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NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been over a month since the Los Angeles Lakers traded Ivica Zubac and Michael Beasley to the LA Clippers for Mike Muscala, and at the time, the moved seemed questionable at best. Now, with the help of hindsight, it’s clear that president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka made arguably their worst trade to date.

The Lakers brought in Muscala because of his ability to space the floor at the center position. So far, Muscala has made just five of his 24 total 3-point attempts. That’s only slightly better than Beasley, who shot 17.6 percent from behind the arc in 26 appearances for the Lakers.

Beasley now plays in China. Muscala started his second game for the Lakers on Tuesday.

The 27-year-old big man is also posting career-lows in offensive rating (95.7) and defensive rating (117.1) for a team-low net rating of -21.4. He’s been bad, and unfortunately, his on-court production isn’t even the worst part of the trade.

In exchange for Muscala, the Clippers received a 22-year-old center in Zubac, who, prior to getting traded across the hall, was the starting center for the Lakers. I repeat, the Lakers traded their starting center for someone that averages 15 minutes per game for his career.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Clippers Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

If this same trade was made over a year ago, perhaps it wouldn’t have been met with such heavy criticism, but Zubac was playing some of the basketball of his career before being traded.

Through 33 games with the Lakers this season, Zubac averaged 19.6 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks Per 36 minutes. The only players to match those averages leading up to the All-Star break were Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis, Jusuf Kurkic and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Will Zubac ever play at the level of those players? Probably not, but those numbers can’t be disregarded, especially with a player as young as Zubac, who won’t turn 23 until about midway through next season.

That same line of thinking is probably why Clippers head coach Doc Rivers was so elated — and surprised — to find out that the Lakers were making Zubac available in trade talks.

The question then is, why on Earth did the Lakers make this trade?

In February, right after making the trade, Pelinka told reporters that the goal of the trade was to “diversify” the Lakers’ center rotation.

“It was hard to trade Zu. (He is a) great young player but we feel Muscala can spread the floor, stretch five and play some forward as well,” Pelinka said. “Just open up the court for our drivers like Rondo, LeBron, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo when he comes back.”

The only problem with that logic — outside of the part where he said Lonzo was coming back — is that even prior to arriving in Los Angeles, Muscala was struggling mightily from behind the arc, shooting 32.7 percent on 3.8 attempts per game. You can’t trade for a player having a bad season and expect him to thrive in an even less familiar situation. That’s insane.

What’s more dumbfounding is that the Lakers had internal options they could have explored before trading their starting center for a rotation player.

In last summer’s draft, the Lakers used their lone first-round draft pick to select Moe Wagner, a floor-spacing, high-energy big man out of the University of Michigan. During Wagner’s introductory press conference, Johnson said he expected the 21-year-old to come in and make an immediate impact.

“I better not speak for coach Walton. He handles the playing time and all of that ... but I selected [the rookies] to play,” Johnson said.

In 32 appearances this season, Wagner is averaging 8.7 minutes per game.

One could argue that Wagner wasn’t and still isn’t ready to see regular rotation minutes, but it wasn’t even an avenue they explored before making Zubac available. That’s a problem, and, as it turns out, the difference in production between Wagner and Muscala is marginal.

Then, there’s the rumor that the Lakers traded Zubac because they felt they couldn’t afford him, as reported by Brad Turner of the Los Angeles Times in February. The only problem with that theory is that Zubac’s salary was always a non-issue.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Zubac will hit restricted free agency this summer with a cap hold of $1.9 million. Even with Zubac’s cap hold, the Lakers would have still been able to sign Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving or Klay Thompson to a max contract starting at $32.7 million.

With the roughly $3 million in cap space they would have left over, they could have filled out their bench and then gone over the cap to sign Zubac to a new deal because they would have had his full bird rights. Now the Clippers, who will be doing star chasing of their own this summer, will have that luxury.

The only scenario in which Zubac’s restricted free agency status would have been an issue for the Lakers in their pursuit of a second star would have been if another team made him a lucrative offer, which would have tied up L.A.’s cap space temporarily. In the unlikely event that happened within the first few days of free agency, the Lakers could have simply renounced him and it would have had the same affect as trading him did.

Crazy, I know.

If the Lakers sign a superstar free agent this summer and that extra $2 million they saved is used to sign a quality free agents, maybe this trade will all be an afterthought. But this unnecessary sense of urgency to solve problems that don’t exist yet is what cost the Lakers D’Angelo Russell in 2017, and Julius Randle last summer.

The front office can make all the signings and trades they want, but until they learn from their mistakes, this organization is going to be where its been for the past six years.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Christian on Twitter at @RadRivas.

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