Whether you love or loathe the Lakers, I think everyone can agree that their roster as currently constructed is not good enough to win an NBA championship (which is the stated goal of every top decision-maker in the organization). I’m not breaking news or offering up a hot take when I say this — the Lakers are currently 3-10 and have the second-worst record in the western conference. And while the pending returns of Dennis Schröder and Thomas Bryant will help, they’re two role-players coming back to a team in need of more than two role players, if they’re to morph into title contenders.
This reality, then, has led many to the conclusion that if the Lakers are going to upgrade their roster in order to get closer to their goals, a trade is needed. This belief isn’t in any way new, either. People have been saying this since before this current roster was even built last summer and I’ve argued for such many times in the past; if you want thoughts on that, I won’t bore you with rehashing them all here, you can find them in the archives of this site or of the podcast I co-host.
A common refrain of this discussion regarding the Lakers making a trade, though, quickly devolves into whether or not they’re going to give up the necessary draft compensation in order to entice a team to actually make a deal — aka the Lakers’ draft picks in 2027 and 2029. The next step in that argument is, basically, that the decision around trading those picks becomes about their relative value not only to the rest of the league (who, regardless of any posturing, almost certainly covets these picks) but to the Lakers themselves.
It’s that last framing that interests me, mostly because the discussion is almost always (wrongly) contextualized as these being the Lakers' only draft picks. For example, here is The Athletic’s Shams Charania discussing the Lakers' hesitancy to trade these picks if the team continues to struggle this season (emphasis mine):
“I’m told the organization will be prudent with their two first round picks available the rest of the decade... As of right now, the organization seems to be moving in a direction where they’re going to resist moving first round picks if the season continues to go down this path.”
And here is Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes saying something similar (emphasis mine):
The question often discussed in Lakers’ headquarters nowadays is whether they should go all-in expeditiously on revamping the roster around James and Anthony Davis, or are they better served to postpone wholesale changes until the end of the season?
Lacking young, enticing assets and draft capital to strengthen the roster, the Lakers are only armed with two first-round picks in 2027 and 2029, respectively.
At its worst, stating things in this manner is a blatant misrepresentation of the facts. At best, it lacks full context and, intentionally or not, can be misconstrued too easily by readers/listeners. And — because of that type of easy misinterpretation — is too often propped up as a key reason to not trade those picks when I’d argue other reasons are actually much more straightforward and understandable (more on that later).
The full context of the Lakers’ draft pick situation is this:
- Between now and the end of the decade, the Lakers are slated to have a 1st round pick in all but a single draft.
- To spell this out more clearly, in 2023, either 2024 or 2025, 2026, 2027, 2028, and 2029 the Lakers are guaranteed to have a 1st round selection on draft night. In 2023, the Pelicans can choose to swap their own 1st round pick with the Lakers’ pick, but, again this still equates to the Lakers having a pick.
- In either 2024 or 2025, the Lakers will send their own 1st round pick to the Pelicans as part of the Anthony Davis trade. The Pelicans will choose which pick they want when they either decide to take the 2024 pick or defer until the next season.
Things, however, are rarely discussed in this exact manner when it comes to the team’s picks, and, instead, we get language like what is highlighted in the above quotes. Regarding the trading of any of these future picks, however, is where things get trickier and where it’s best to dive further into the details in order to spell things out more (and where language like Haynes uses, specifically, is on point).
Because of collective bargaining agreement rules that do not allow you to trade future draft picks in consecutive seasons (hello, Ted Stepien!), the swap rights that the Pelicans have in 2023, and the deferment rights the Pelicans have in 2024, the Lakers' ability to trade future picks is encumbered.
Essentially, even though the Lakers are guaranteed to have picks in all by one draft through the end of the decade, they can’t trade picks in 2023 (swapped to NOLA), 2024 (deferment rights), 2025 (deferment rights), or 2026 (Stepien Rule in case NOLA chooses 2024). The next first pick they can trade, then is in 2027. And then if they did trade that pick, because of the Stepien Rule, not again after that until 2029.
Now, I can understand not wanting to explain this every single time. There’s often not a lot of time for nuance or context on a 60-second TV hit or even in a larger article about something only tangentially related to this subject. But, it is important to understand that this is the truth of the situation. Because, when you do understand that this is the case, the argument that the Lakers would be trading their only picks through the end of the decade loses credulity.
Whether you still want to trade the picks after considering these facts is still a worthwhile conversation, of course.
Maybe you still value those picks because of the potential for them to be near the top of the draft and giving those up now feels too risky. Maybe you believe that the path toward the Lakers getting their next superstar player is through a trade and you believe you’ll need as many draft picks as possible to execute a deal. Maybe you simply value picks more than players in general and you’d need to see a superstar player coming back to persuade you to make a trade. These are reasonable positions that reasonable minds can disagree on.
Which, honestly, I sort of do. The Lakers, as currently constructed have two high-level superstars who can still play All-Star caliber basketball and a good (but not great) cast of role players muddled by an imbalanced roster. The timeline of those stars and the urgency to win while you have them (and their ability to play to the level they still can) is high. Further, the fact that the Lakers actually do have more draft capital than is discussed, that some of that capital actually cannot be traded artificially insulates the team from giving away too much — and that it also gives them enough ammunition to actually improve the team — pushes me fully into the camp advocating that a deal should be made.
Now, of course, the devil is always in the details. And discerning between what is a good deal — and what isn’t — is how presidents of basketball operations make their money. There can be countless iterations of trades where the “would you’s or won’t you’s” can be debated and argued out ad nauseam. So, I’m not sitting here saying to give everything away just to make a deal. Prudence is needed, and I think we can all agree on that point.
Just like we can also agree on what picks the Lakers have now and, more importantly, what picks they’d still have even if they did decide to deal their picks in 2027 and 2029. Because that isn’t in question, even if it can feel like sometimes it is.