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Should the Lakers trade for Buddy Hield?

Is it time for the Lakers to finally make good on their long-rumored interest?

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Los Angeles Lakers v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

On July 29, 2021, the Lakers reportedly reached the one-yard line on a deal that would have brought them Buddy Hield in return for Montrezl Harrell and Kyle Kuzma.

While the merits of that original, never-completed trade could still be called into question, it all became moot a few minutes later, when the Lakers reversed course by trading a bigger sum for an even bigger name.

Adding in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and the No. 22 pick in that year’s draft to the package they were offering for Hield, the Lakers audibled, instead deciding to deal three rotation players along with their 2021 first rounder for Russell Westbrook, owed more than $90 million over the following two seasons (presuming he’d opt-into the final year of his deal, which, of course, he did).

In the months that followed, angst over the Lakers’ ill-conceived move to trade for the ill-fitting, past-his-prime superstar fueled forays into the trade machine. Fans and analysts alike cooked up multi-team deals to eventually land Hield, almost immediately regarded as the more sensible between the pair of divergent roads, despite being the one not travelled.

Now, it seems like the Lakers are trying to solve their yearlong buyer’s remorse from the acquisition of Westbrook by figuring out a new deal that could finally, actually land them Buddy Hield.

Per Bob Kravitz of The Athletic, talks between the Lakers and Pacers are dead as of last Monday, but the Lakers got as far as attaching a first-rounder and two seconds to Russell Westbrook’s contract in exchange for both Hield and Myles Turner. And with the Lakers unwilling to burn a second first round pick in any deal to unload Westbrook so far, it seems like the two teams could be quite a ways away from each other when it comes to reaching an agreement.

Still, news of the Lakers’ sustained interest in Hield merits a deeper dive into his viability as a contributing role player on LeBron James and Anthony Davis’ Lakers.

The top-line takeaway from any scouting report of Hield’s abilities is that he’s among the league’s top long-range marksmen. Before last year, Hield shot at least 39.1% on threes in each of his first half-dozen NBA seasons, and ranked eighth in cumulative 3-point accuracy amongst qualified shooters who played in at least 300 games during that period.

When taking into account the difficulty of those shots, Hield’s percentage looks even better — his generally above league average 3-point shot quality plummeted into the bottom quartile in both 2019-20 and 2020-21 according to the BBall Index. But despite being so aggressively guarded, Hield was able to knock down those threes at an elite clip of 39.2%.

However, this past season, counterintuitively, Hield’s accuracy fell to a career-low 36.6% while his shot quality drifted upwards towards league average. According to NBA.com, more than half of Hield’s threes came with at least four feet of distance between himself and his closest defender, but his accuracy on tightly contested (2-4 feet of space) threes fell to 28.8% despite making up almost 30% of all of Hield’s shots.

It’s hard to pinpoint a precise cause for Hield’s regression on contested triples, but a midseason trade from Sacramento to Indiana, both teams’ lack of overall continuity or competitiveness, the absence of a truly elite playmaker beside him on either club, and the imminence of Hield’s 30th birthday in December could all have played a role.

In any case, Hield’s long been a better catch-and-shooter than a pull-up guy, a dynamic that should enable improved raw accuracy if he were to join the ultimate playmaker that is LeBron James in Los Angeles. Even in a down year last season, Hield shot 39.1% on catch-and-shoot threes compared to only 31% on pull-up ones. If he were to come to the Lakers, Hield would almost certainly walk in as the team’s best 3-point shooter, regardless of which version of himself he were to bring to the squad, especially given the opportunity to benefit from a playmaker of LeBron’s caliber for the first time in his career.

Still, that all depends on Hield’s willingness to reign in his shot selection. On the Lakers, he’d be the third option on offense in almost any Laker lineup, making a contested pull-up three an even worse shot in Los Angeles’ context than it would have been in either Indiana or Sacramento. He’s also been someone who likes to make plays off the dribble for himself and his teammates, but with the Lakers, he’d need to pare back some of that kind of usage in order to be a smooth fit with the team’s top duo.

Despite his offensive firepower, Hield’s warts as a player begin to show when examining him as a defender. He grades out well as a chaser of other movement shooters, but that’s about the full extent of his defensive staunchness. Like the Lakers’ recent midlevel exception signing, Lonnie Walker IV, Hield’s coaches typically plastered him to his opponent’s weakest threat, limiting his defensive liability. According to the BBall Index, Hield guarded “low-minute” opponents more than 99% of the NBA, meaning his team tried to hide him from exposure on that end as much as almost anyone else in the league.

For a team with championship aspirations, this demerit is of particular concern, due to the fact that playoff basketball — as has been proven as recently as this season — tends to devolve into mismatch hunting where teams’ top scorers attack their opponents’ weakest link.

If Hield is on the floor in the playoffs — something that has yet to happen — opposing teams will attack him if he is the worst defender on the floor. If he’s not your team’s worst defender, you probably don’t have a playoff-quality defense to begin with.

While his shooting has generally helped neutralize that defensive ineptitude, it’s tough to recommend parting with a first round draft pick to get an average NBA player — Hield’s approximate ranking according most impact metrics from last season. And if the intensity of playoff basketball drives his shot quality down and his defensive responsibility up, it’s not hard to imagine his overall performance plummeting towards unplayable territory.

Just imagine any of the West’s top offensive guards getting Hield switched onto them. Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, and so many others would make light work of the relatively undersized, slow-footed wing.

Anthony Davis is one of the rare talents capable of cleaning up more than his fair share of his teammates’ lapses on defense, but as last season showed, there comes a point where even he can’t make a viable defense on his own. Further, the worse the defense around Davis is, the greater his physical burden becomes. And for a guy who’s struggled to stay on the floor for much of the past pair of seasons, I’d be wary of adding players that make AD’s life any harder than it already is.

If Buddy Hield is someone the Lakers end up acquiring in order to match Russell Westbrook’s salary, that’s one thing, but he should not be viewed as some sort of missing piece for this Lakers team. Owed $39 million over the next two seasons, he’s on a reasonably priced contract as one of the game’s sharpest shooters, but it’s not like the Lakers would be getting him on any kind of a discount. Further, the near $19 million he’s owed in 2023-24 would bar the Lakers from bidding on any upcoming superstar free agents, presuming they’re still in business with LeBron James. If they aren’t, they likely won’t be anywhere near the title contention conversation anyways.

If there is a Kyrie Irving trade to be had, Buddy Hield’s shooting would serve as a nice complement to fill out a legitimately dangerous offensive unit — presuming Joe Harris isn’t already included in that deal — but he’s by no means a replacement to a talent of Irving’s caliber.

Even combined with Myles Turner, the player who’d likely headline a return for Westbrook and at least one first rounder if the Lakers were to come to terms with the Pacers, Hield’s deficiencies as a player limit his potential value to little more than salary ballast. If the Lakers were to include a second first rounder in any trade, it shouldn’t be for the opportunity to employ Hield.

He’s a real NBA player, and the Lakers need those, badly, but he likely isn’t and shouldn’t be their top target this offseason, even if some of what he does clearly synergizes with the Lakers’ stars’ preexisting strengths.

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 hear him on the Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.