The Lakers don’t currently have a championship-worthy roster. That may be an opinion and not a statement of fact, but based on the newness of the team, the recent injury history of the two best players, and the fit issues with Russell Westbrook, it’s an opinion espoused by many.
With LeBron James on the team, anything short of contention is a failure, especially at this point in his career when he has limited years remaining. As a result, the front office still has work to do to get the Lakers to that upper tier in the NBA hierarchy, and vice president of basketball operations Rob Pelinka said Monday at media day that the franchise will do whatever it takes to improve the roster not just because the organization wants to compete, but because LeBron deserves it:
“Let me be abundantly clear. We have one of the great players in LeBron James to ever play the game on our team, and he committed to us with a long-term contract, a three-year contract. So of course, we will do everything we can, picks included, to make deals that give us a chance to help LeBron get to the end. He committed to our organization. That’s got to be a bilateral commitment, and it’s there.”
The only way for the Lakers to get better now, with training camp beginning Tuesday and free agency essentially over, is via trade, and it has been well-documented that the Lakers possess limited resources to make a big move.
They have very few young players, with only Max Christie and Austin Reaves currently on their rookie contracts, and — all due respect to the man who put up a triple-double in game 82 of the 2021-22 season — neither projects to be a star. They also don’t have any useful matching salary because only four players are making more than $10 million, and of those four, the Lakers are only willing to move Russell Westbrook.
That leaves the picks. The Lakers already owe their 2024 first-round pick to New Orleans because of the Anthony Davis trade, but the Pelicans can defer that to 2025 if they choose, and the Lakers certainly hope they will so long as LeBron is on this team. The problem with that deferment is it encumbers the Lakers’ first-rounders for two seasons, plus the years before and after.
Much of the reporting over the summer has suggested that the Lakers are unwilling to include the necessary draft compensation in a potential Westbrook trade, and Pelinka’s response to that line of thinking was — after giving a short explainer on the Stepien rule to the assembled media — that the Lakers only really have one opportunity to make an impactful deal. With a depleted pool of assets, once the Lakers move those two firsts, that’s it. That means Pelinka and the front office have to get this right:
“You understand the CBA and things like the Ted Stepien rule, which teams can’t trade all their picks every year. You can only trade every other year, as everybody in the room knows. In 2025, most likely we still owe a pick in the Anthony Davis trade. And so then if you include the 2027 pick in the 2029 pick, all your picks are gone. You have one shot to make a trade with multiple picks. So if you make that trade, and I’m not talking about any particular player on our team, but if you make that trade, it has to be the right one, you have one shot to do it. So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that will improve our roster. And again, as I started the question by saying, we are committed to doing everything we can to put the best team around LeBron as long as it’s a smart trade because of the limitations caused by the Stepien rule and the implications of that.”
Pelinka isn’t wrong about the task the Lakers are facing. They have emptied out their war chest in recent seasons, not just because of the Anthony Davis trade, but also by sending out multiple picks and quality role players (matching salary) in the Dennis Schröder and Westbrook deals. So yes, Pelinka has to be careful about what comes next, but he made his own bed. He can’t preach discipline now after throwing caution to the wind with previous moves.
The Lakers have a clear objective, one that Pelinka uttered himself, and that’s to put LeBron James in the best position possible as he hopefully finishes out his career in Los Angeles. Given the current state of the Lakers, the “right trade” may not exist. But there’s definitely a deal out there that makes the team better if Pelinka is willing to back up his words with meaningful action.