When Talen Horton-Tucker was dealt from the Lakers as part of a package to bring back Patrick Beverley last week, it was a startling moment of realization of precisely how far his value had plummeted in a little more than a year.
In 2021, THT was the line in the sand drawn by the franchise in negotiations for Kyle Lowry. The Lakers offered the Raptors a combination of role players, perhaps even draft compensation, but apparently THT was a step too far. So then how did we get from that point to last week, where the Lakers traded him for a veteran on an expiring deal? Even if Pat Bev will serve as an upgrade, that alone further proves that the Lakers got it all wrong with THT.
When the Lakers said no to including THT in a Lowry deal, he was a developing piece on a Lakers team that looked like title favorites when healthy in the 2020-21 season. It didn’t feel like an overstep in negotiations to consider him off limits.
To start with, the narrative around THT began to shift when he was signed to a multi-year deal in the summer of 2021 and Alex Caruso wasn’t. Framing it as the Lakers choosing THT over Caruso isn’t accurate as the franchise simply got cheap and chose not to pay both players, but it was the easy narrative that was repeated in the months to come.
But what did the most damage to THT was the arrival of Russell Westbrook. With THT already being a player that struggled off the ball, the Lakers bringing in another ball-dominant player forced THT into roles and positions on the court that did not suit him.
According to NBA WOWY, which measures advanced statistics and lineup data, of Talen Horton-Tucker’s 1,511 minutes this season, 439 of them were spent alongside Russ without LeBron on the court, 432 of them were spent with LeBron and no Russ and 328 of them were spent with both Russ and LeBron. That’s 1,199 minutes — or 79.4% of his total minutes — where he was not the primary ball-handler on the floor, the role he excels at the most.
There’s myriad factors that goes into that. Making Horton-Tucker the primary ball-handler has its pros and cons and there probably shouldn’t be many lineups on the court without both LeBron and Russ. The Lakers’ roster-building left a lot to be desired and not having enough shooters and wings led to not only lacking players around THT that could help him excel, it forced THT to be the wing player in lots of lineups.
The end result was THT struggling throughout the year. His 3-point attempt rate, which is a measure of 3-point attempts relative to total field goal attempts, rose seven percentage points this season while his accuracy on those shots went down from an already bad 28.2% to 26.9%. His usage rate and assist percentages went down as the ball was taken out of his hands and, thus, his effectiveness dropped across the board.
While most franchises put players in positions to succeed, the Lakers seemed to go out of their way to do the opposite for THT. A mixture of a bad roster and poor lineups led to THT’s value falling. The Lakers were routinely trotting him out and putting him in positions to fail, then shopping him across the league to teams wanting value back on him.
Now, it’s fair to point out THT is no innocent bystander in this. For one, being paid on average of $10 million annually comes with an expectation of production that he was never able to consistently bring.
And it’s going to be hard for him to succeed anywhere in the league if he can’t shoot at least 30% from 3-point range as a primary ball-handler. He can have tunnel vision when driving to the rim and it’s somewhere between baffling and impressive how much he refuses to use his left hand.
And yet, THT will head to Utah as a 21-year old entering his fourth year in the league. He’s already shown some improvement upon his pre-draft stock which allowed him to slide to the second round, earned a second NBA contract, and been the at the center of a litany of trade rumors.
There is plenty of reason to believe THT has a bright future in store for him in this league. All the things that made him intriguing are still there. He still has an enormous wingspan that allows him to defend wings along with a knack for getting to and finishing at the rim. Give him some room to grow, put him in positions to succeed and he can be right back on track to proving he’s that promising prospect all over again.
But that won’t come with the Lakers, who have no one to blame but themselves. For a franchise that has been so excellent at spotting and developing talent, the last 12 months will serve as a textbook in how not to handle a young player on a contending team.
THT went from promising prospect that was nearly dealt for an All-Star to an afterthought dealt for a role player. For now, it’s the exception to the rule for the Lakers front office, but it doesn’t make it any easier a pill to swallow of what could have been.