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How the Lakers can plug the holes in their sinking ship at the deadline

What the Lakers need at the NBA trade deadline, why they shouldn’t trade Talen Horton-Tucker, and more thoughts on how to salvage this season and beyond.

Brooklyn Nets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Although it seems like a team with both LeBron James and Anthony Davis should be good enough to win a championship next to a trio from your local 24 Hour Fitness, it turns out you actually need real NBA players to let superstars do their thing, especially when you’re down to just one of them at a time. So while it’s fair to say there are good lineups within the construction of this Lakers team, the reality is that they’ve scarcely played together.

So while yes, injuries to LeBron and AD have been the biggest impediment to the team’s chances of winning games on a night-to-night basis, it’s not just their absences that have hurt. It’s who the Lakers have had to replace them with that’s made things even worse.

Remember, the Lakers started the season with Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza as the only forwards backing up James and Davis. In 2019-20, the title season, they had Kyle Kuzma, Markieff Morris, and Danny Green. In 2020-21, they had Kuzma, Markieff, Wes Matthews, and Montrezl Harrell. Although Anthony’s bailed the Lakers out of more situations than he should have had to, the defensive strength and versatility between the two veteran’s minimum signings pales in comparison to either of the previous two season’s forward corps. They’ve since gotten lucky by stumbling into Stanley Johnson after a trio of 10-day contracts, but he’s better utilized as a point of attack defender on someone like James Harden than he is battling down low with a big like Onyeka Okongwu.

Regardless of whether one was particularly keen on those particular groups or not, the sheer depth helped the Lakers remain flexible when a player or two became unavailable during any given stretch of the season.

This year, the Lakers have fallen apart whenever they’ve been down any of their rotation guys, a scenario that has unfortunately been the case for most of the season so far. Through 53 games, they have played just seven times with LeBron and AD in the starting lineup without a traditional center, and just once beside Stanley Johnson. In those seven games, they’re 5-2, and 1-0 in the game with Stanley. That version of the team is undeniably a good one, it’s just not been available anywhere close to frequently enough.

All this is to say that the most dire consequence of the trade for Russell Westbrook wasn’t the fact that Russ has played worse than the idealized version of himself. It’s that they gave up three quality NBA players (a wing and two forwards) for one quality NBA player (a guard).

Los Angeles Lakers v LA Clippers
Russell Westbrook isn’t the problem. It’s how the Lakers got him that’s the issue.
Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

So with the trade deadline approaching this week (Feb. 10), the Lakers shouldn’t focus their efforts on a big swing to revolutionize the underratedly solid foundation of what they built the team on. Trading Russell Westbrook’s massive contract and minimal current value can’t feasibly bring them back the level of depth that they lost, anyway. Ultimately, they’ll get as far as LeBron and AD are capable of taking them, they just need enough viable bodies around them to have a chance at winning games right now.

A couple more viable NBA players would go a long way towards giving the Lakers a few more winning lineups to deploy, and help them stay away from the ones that quickly erase leads or dig them into holes. As the deadline approaches, they should do everything within their power to add a big wing or two without making another negative asset play.

Talen Horton-Tucker has been the name most frequently mentioned in theoretical proposals to add such players, both by fans, and reportedly by the team itself. But given the organizational commitment made to Horton-Tucker so far — both financially, and in terms of playing time — the Lakers would be unwise to close off one of their only pathways to internal improvement by shipping him out when his stock is at an all-time low.

If they’re committed to flipping him into a piece that can help bring the Lakers a championship during what could potentially be LeBron’s last two seasons under contract in Los Angeles, they should at least try to wait until he’s recouped some of his value, either this offseason, or at next year’s deadline. Right now, his market seems to have cooled to the point where he’s little more than salary ballast in any deal, especially with his contract expiring after a player option in 2023-24, taking him through his still laughably young age-22 season. If THT’s willing to decline his $11 million, 2023-24 option, it likely means he’ll have blossomed into something better than he is now. If he doesn’t, the Lakers will have a chance to extend a still pre-prime THT on another, perhaps even more team-friendly contract. Trading him now erases all of those possibilities.

So if Talen is off the table, what should, or can the Lakers even do? My favorite potentially reasonable trade on the market — especially now that Robert Covington is off the table — is one with the Oklahoma City Thunder:

While I would ideally love to trade Trevor Ariza for his own trade exception — which the Thunder currently hold — just for laughs, the Lakers should do this deal with two second rounders, or even throw in the 2027 first if it’s as necessary to get the deal done as has been reported.

They’d have to cut one of their currently rostered players (or trade them for nothing like they did with Rajon Rondo) to do a two-for-one deal, but there are plenty of ways to make the numbers around this asset swap work. If the Lakers can’t get both Muscala and Williams, either one of these guys would give the Lakers a much-needed boost to their team this year and next year, as both are under contract on relatively cheap deals for another season.

I know Muscala’s acquisition the first time around was a disaster, but you wouldn’t have to trade a young, promising center to get him this time, and he’s playing the best basketball of his career on a per-minute basis this season. And although grabbing Muscala might seem like it cuts against the Lakers’ new look with LeBron and AD as their only 5s, they’ve often only had one of the two.

Plus, going big was never the problem in and of itself. The problem is the guys they’ve attempted to do it with.

Going big worked in each of the past two seasons, especially when their center was a capable 3-point shooter. Last season’s most-used starting lineup of Dennis Schröder, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marc Gasol, LeBron and Davis was +12.8 points per 100 possessions in 584 possessions. The Lakers could easily recreate much of what worked about that lineup by snagging Muscala and Williams to fill the gaps left by KCP and Gasol’s absences.

In fact, despite his fraught first stint in the purple and gold, Muscala’s been one of the best shooting bigs in the NBA this season. He’s shooting 42.5% on mostly very open threes, giving him an A- Perimeter Shooting grade according to The Basketball Index. Next to LeBron, AD, and/or Russ, he’d likely get as good — or better — shots than he was getting as a member of the Thunder.

However, it’s his defensive prowess that could give the team a boost where it needs it the most — helping protect the rim with two bigs the way the Lakers did over the past two seasons, while also retaining the offensively beneficial spacing of going small. Surprisingly, he grades out as an even better rim protector than as a shooter in limited action (13.8 minutes per game).

Grades via The Basketball Index.

His shooting would keep the floor spaced in lineups with Davis, without compromising the team’s interior defense, a tradeoff Vogel’s been saddled with in almost every five-man combination he’s turned to.

His presence on the roster would give the Lakers a third look at center without crippling the offense, while, alternatively, Kenrich Williams’ arrival would allow the Lakers to stay small at the 5 without playing someone as tiny as Avery Bradley, Malik Monk, or Russell Westbrook on the opposing team’s 3. Also, Kenrich’s significantly superior passing, finishing, and rebounding abilities would give the Lakers’ offense a boost above what hyper-limited waiver-add Avery Bradley has been able to provide.

Also, although they grade out as similarly skilled shooters and perimeter defenders, Williams’ size makes him the much more versatile stopper, giving him more value against bigger teams or as part of a switching defense.

If the Lakers can’t get a similarly cheap forward or two for the price of Kendrick Nunn’s contract and a pick or two, there likely isn’t a quality deal on the market for them to make. Still, buyout season approaches, and the Lakers could get someone like a Thaddeus Young to eat up rotation minutes at one of the forward spots even if they strike out at the deadline.

So while it’s undoubtedly still time to go all-in on LeBron’s winnowing championship window, there are definitely smarter and dumber ways of doing so. Trading Horton-Tucker when his stock is at a career-nadir for anything but a home run would fall in the latter category, but finding a couple of solid role player upgrades in exchange for a far-off pick and a player who has yet to play would fit into the former bucket nicely. If the Lakers can do that, they just might be able to salvage this rapidly sinking season yet.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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