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How the Lakers can improve before the trade deadline

It won’t be easy, but the Lakers can theoretically acquire a difference-maker at the trade deadline.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Detroit Pistons Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the Los Angeles Lakers have struggled to start the season and the worst part is that they don’t have a ton of options when it comes to improving their roster before the trade deadline due to their mishandling of assets in the summer, particularly one Alex Caruso.

However, just because they don’t have very many avenues to acquire a difference-maker doesn’t mean it’s impossible for them to facilitate a trade. In fact, on Dec. 14, it’s going to get much easier because, across the league, trade restrictions will be lifted on a majority players who signed new contracts in the summer.

Here’s your guide to the Lakers at the 2021 NBA trade deadline:

Who’s trade eligible right now?

Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Austin Reaves can all be traded today, but that’s probably not going to happen for a multitude of reasons.

Westbrook, arguably the most expendable of the Lakers’ “Big Three” is under contract for $44.2 million this season and $47 million next season. Even though he’s played a lot better as of late, it’s hard to imagine anyone taking on that contract without taking another significant form of compensation in return, whether that be draft picks or players.

Trading James and/or Davis would be a lot easier, but it would likely take a trade request for the Lakers to take calls for either of them. At their best, they’re two of the 10 best players in the NBA and unless they’re getting comparable talent in return, any conversations revolved around them are non-starters.

Reaves is obviously in a different position than his superstar teammates, but his contract — a two-year, $2.48 million deal with a non-guaranteed second year — is so cheap that it would be surprising to see him traded unless it were were for a player of equal or greater value.

Who will be trade eligible on Dec. 14?

Los Angeles Lakers v Detroit Pistons Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

Almost everyone else will have their trade restrictions lifted on Dec. 14; the only player that isn’t trade eligible now that will be trade eligible before then is Bradley.

Bradley, who the Lakers claimed off of waivers on Oct. 18, will become trade-eligible on Dec. 17, 60 days after he was claimed. The simplest way for the Lakers to part ways with Bradley would be to waive him before Jan. 7, the day his contract becomes fully-guaranteed, but if they want tradable salary, then it would make sense to keep him past Dec. 17.

Should we expect a trade?

I’d lean towards yes. It’s true that Rob Pelinka hasn’t made a trade at the deadline since he took over as the Lakers’ general manager in 2017, but if there were ever a time for him to break that tradition, it’s now.

The Lakers are 12-12 through the first two months of the season and it’s not in spite of the moves Pelinka made (and didn’t make) in the offseason; changes are clearly in order. Unfortunately, any meaningful trade would likely have to include Horton-Tucker and his $9.5 million salary.

Making the case to trade Horton-Tucker is much easier now than it was at the start of the season. After looking like he was on the verge of a breakout in his firs three games, the 21-year-old is now averaging 10.6 points per game on a lowly 38.3% from the field and 25.6% from behind the arc.

Horton-Tucker has shown flashes of brilliance on both ends of the floor this season, but not enough for him to be considered untouchable. If the right deal comes along, then he should be available.

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The same can be said of Kendrick Nunn, although his highs as a player have come with different teams because he’s yet to make his regular season debut for the Lakers. Combined, Horton-Tucker and Nunn would make up $18.2 million in outgoing salary. Add a minimum contract to that number and you’re looking at just over $20 million.

There are obvious concerns about filling roster spots in the aftermath of two or three-for-one trade, but getting help around the margins after the trade deadline is a lot easier than getting a high-level starter, which is the only type of player the Lakers should accept in return for Horton-Tucker and Nunn.

What if they don’t want to trade THT or Nunn?

If the Lakers decide that there isn’t a player worth making a home run move for, then they can stack veteran’s minimum contracts. Granted, it’s not often that teams accept deals in which they receive three end-of-bench players in exchange for a solid rotation piece, but with the appropriate draft compensation, it’s technically possible.

How much the Lakers get in return for their veteran’s minimum contracts depends on how many they package together. While one would only allow them to take back $2.1 million, three would allow them to take back over $6.3 million, the latter of which would put them in the conversation for players like Justin Holiday and Torrey Craig.

At the moment, there’s no one on the Lakers that appears to be on the trade block, but Kent Bazemore and DeAndre Jordan are both out of the rotation, so it’s safe to assume they’d listen to offers for both of them at the trade deadline.

The only other way the Lakers can acquire a player at the trade deadline is through the $2.69 million trade exception they created in the Marc Gasol trade. Similar to the veteran’s minimum route, draft compensation would likely be required to make the trade exception slightly appealing since it can’t be combined with a player. Even then, the market for players making less than $2.69 million isn’t great, as you can imagine.

A cap-savvy move for the Lakers would be to trade for a player using the trade exception and then use that additional salary a bigger trade before the trade deadline, but they would have to 1. waive someone in order for that to happen and 2. execute the first trade before Dec. 11 so that the players’ salary can be combined with one or more players’.

Suffice to say, the Lakers have to jump through a number of hoops in order to make even a small upgrade at the trade deadline, but there’s a way for them to get there and if things don’t improve two months from now, they should be aggressive in trying to acquire talent.

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