On a day that saw Kristaps Porzingis get traded to the Wizards for Spencer Dinwiddie within hours of the James Harden for Ben Simmons star-swap materializing after looking dead in the water just a week earlier, it’s hard to say that the Lakers having the same exact team coming out of the NBA trade deadline as they did going into it ranks as the biggest surprise of the last 24 hours, but it’s certainly up there for me.
The Lakers, reportedly involved in talks with several teams in an attempt to make a deal before Thursday’s deadline, are in a tailspin and, from the outside looking in, in real need of a roster shakeup. Forget assigning blame or trying to diagnose the why’s of it all, let’s just focus on on the facts.
The team is currently four games under .500, and their last two losses were a demolition at the hands of the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, and a fall-from-ahead embarrassment of a loss to the tanking Portland Trail Blazers. They are in 9th place in the West, which, if the season ended today, would mean they’d need to win two games just for the right to play the Suns (again) in the first round of the playoffs. Viewed through that lens, not doing a single thing to adjust the trajectory of the team — which is currently going in the wrong direction, and quickly — could be seen as general management malpractice.
And if you’re one of the people that feels that way, I don’t begrudge you. Again, I thought the Lakers were going to make a move. Moreover, I thought they needed to.
Of course, there is also room on the other side of that perspective as well, though. And, in the aftermath of the team’s non-moves, it’s clear that the this front office was only in the market for a trade if it met three criteria:
- The trade would need to significantly impact their ability to win games right now.
- That same deal would also propel them back into the discussion of true contenders for the championship.
- Any trade would need to achieve additional long-term goals at the same time it dramatically altered those previously stated short term ones. (These would likely be a mix of keeping their future salary cap relatively clean and not emptying their draft pick coffers entirely with so many future picks already owed as part of the Anthony Davis trade.)
To put it plainly, there’s literally no trade that could have been available to the team that would have satisfied all of those disparate goals at the same time. The Lakers simply do not have the assets to pull off such a deal, not in the form of salary ballast, quality players, nor immediate draft picks. It simply wasn’t going to happen.
It’s also important to note here that I don’t necessarily believe the front office kept the team as-is because they have some innate belief in the roster that they built. I don’t think this was pride, or ego, or some long-standing trust in their work from eight months ago that they feel some need to see through until the end.
No, I think they made a calculation based on where they are, where they want to go, and determined the gulf between those things wasn’t going to be bridged by a trade deadline deal involving any of the assets they have at their disposal, or any of the lateral moves that those assets would have netted.
And, honestly, this is a totally understandable position. When Rob Pelinka spoke to the media in the aftermath of standing pat, he said, essentially, that when you’re the Lakers, you’re either winning a championship or you’re not. The implication being that all the decisions on how to build a team are seen through the prism of “how close are we to winning a title, and how much closer do we get by making this move?”. The Lakers — rightfully, I think — determined they are not very close, and that none of the moves available to them in advance of the trade deadline would get them significantly closer.
So, they decided no deal was worth it. I get it.
We also shouldn’t ignore that team building and the pursuit of a championship are long-term endeavors that simultaneously work in one-season intervals. Failing to accomplish that goal this season must be placed against the backdrop of how much that failure — and the moves made to enhance your chances to simply not fail as bad — might impact future chances as well. Big picture, then, not making a move today and saving the assets required to do so gives this front office more options down the line to fortify the roster to better compete for a championship later on.
That said, where the team goes from here and how they manage to compete in the final stretch of games after the all-star break offers real intrigue. Bringing back the same team means the same problems are very much still present.
Whatever dark cloud that has hung over the team of late remains. Whatever issues around getting the most out of Russell Westbrook are still right there. Whatever challenges with the role players performing to the level expected, with the back end of the roster being playable at all, with finding consistency in lineups and rotations... none of those things have gone anywhere.
So, solving those problems must come from within. Are they capable? I have my doubts. And, honestly, I’d imagine those within the organization do too.
How could they not? They’ve seen this team play all season, just like we all have.
Honestly, it’s one of the reasons I advocated making a trade irrespective of how much it moved the needle towards a title: you cannot trust those who have had the opportunity to make the changes needed to this point — and haven’t — to actually make them moving forward.
But, that didn’t happen. So, here we are.
The Lakers have the same team on Friday morning that they began Thursday with. Whether that was the right choice or not is to be determined, but at this point it’s clear why that is the case. In a choice between whether to only slightly improve their chances to win in June or to hold out hope that they can regroup and rebuild to better win in July, the Lakers chose the latter. And, if I’m being honest, I can’t blame them for that.