A year ago at this time, the Lakers front office was scrambling.
The team was falling out of the playoff picture due to LeBron James’ extended injury absence, there was internal drama over the extended Anthony Davis trade negotiations, and an offseason of questionable decision-making was coming back to bite them. As a result, the front office panicked; they made two win-now trades that sacrificed future assets for ultimately no present or future gain.
Fast forward to this trade deadline, and the Lakers are on much more solid footing. The team sits in first place in the Western Conference, and has far less reason to be in panic mode given that the postseason is all but assured for the first time in seven years.
That doesn’t mean the Lakers’ roster doesn’t have holes. Far from it. There are meaningful ways to improve the team that could have been accomplished at this trade deadline, as have been discussed ad nauseam on this very site. A loss to a Western Conference contender Thursday night further exposed some of the team’s weaknesses. Juxtaposed against a team that did make a big trade, it was hard not to feel like a significant indictment of the team’s decision to stick with who they have.
But to make win-now moves would have required a change of course for Rob Pelinka and the front office, and at this moment, that was something Pelinka was unwilling to do.
If this trade deadline revealed anything about the Lakers, it’s this: Pelinka had a vision for this team that he laid out at the start of this season, and he is committed to realizing that vision.
One of the ways Pelinka stuck to his guns was by keeping Kyle Kuzma. It became clear over the offseason how highly the Lakers valued their third-year forward. Rather than keeping more of the team’s future draft picks in the trade for Davis, L.A. prioritized Kuzma, a cost-controlled young player who represented one of the team’s only avenues for potential internal improvement.
Pelinka has been validated in his approach by how the rest of the league sees Kuzma: He nearly made the Team USA roster for the FIBA World Cup — only missing out due to injury — and was a sticking point in every trade the Lakers could have made. A rumored offer from Sacramento would have netted the Lakers a stretch five and a pick in exchange for Kuzma. He was also a player the Knicks wanted.
Nevertheless, the Lakers chose to hold on to him. A year after dangling their young players in every possible trade permutation, the front office held firm on Kuzma’s worth this time around. Short-term upgrades may have been on the table, but the Lakers didn’t bite for a rental. Furthermore, the fact that only the Sacramento and New York deals were even leaked suggests how committed Pelinka was to retaining Kuzma, or at the very least protecting his player in public.
The deadline also cemented Pelinka’s belief in the chemistry of this present roster. Much ink has been spilled about the Lakers’ joyous locker room, and how it rivals or even exceeds the atmosphere of any other team these players have been on. That the Lakers refused to make any moves on the margins, like sacrificing Quinn Cook and a second-round pick for a backup wing, indicates that disrupting the chemistry was a non-starter. This is particularly true in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s passing, a tragedy that seemingly resulted in bringing the players even closer together.
Admittedly, the Lakers were hamstrung in their ability to execute deals due to the Davis trade. Being without a first-round pick put them at a disadvantage when it came to acquiring players like Robert Covington and Marcus Morris Sr. But if the front office were motivated, like it has been in past deadlines in the Pelinka era, possibilities could have been available. The 76ers acquired Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III at a cost the Lakers could have met.
Instead, the team looks exactly the same as it did on Opening Night. After a 2019 deadline when the front office tried to hastily erase all of the mistakes of the offseason, the Lakers appear to be letting the process play out this year.
The question now becomes: was that the right choice?
L.A.’s offense still craters when LeBron James is off the floor. When he is playing, he and the rest of the team’s scorers can be stifled by bigger, physical wings. Perimeter defense remains a challenge. And all of those problems may have been exacerbated by the Rockets and the Clippers making deadline deals that made them better.
Last season, maybe it didn’t make sense for the Lakers to go all-in, given James’ injury and the fact that the team was clearly one star away from being a real contender. Now, they have two superstars, an older James, and no Golden State Warriors-level behemoth in the West. A move to get better in the present in this situation may have actually been the correct call.
Minor improvements may still be on the horizon. Darren Collison lurks, as do other potential buyout candidates. But when Pelinka and the Lakers were faced with their best chance of making an impactful change, they passed.
Two weeks ago, when asked about what the team might do at the deadline, James was steadfast in his answer when he said, “We have enough right now.”
Pelinka and the front office appear to think this too. As the rest of the season plays out, that belief will continue to be put to the test.