Editor’s Note: The CDP wrote for Silver Screen and Roll regularly during the rebuild years. For the latest edition of his semi-yearly return to the site as an alumnus, he wrote about why he feels the Lakers owe it to both LeBron James and themselves to trade their picks and go all-in this year.
For the second straight season, the Lakers have found themselves in the headlines and water cooler discussions for the wrong reasons. Since their championship in 2020, it’s been a nearly non-stop parade of injuries, bad decisions, speculation about the politics behind the decision-making of the organization, and most of all, misery.
It’s all enough to make you wonder if this era is a lost cause, a question that the Lakers’ hesitancy to make a trade to this point implies they are asking themselves, too. But despite legitimate concerns about potentially compounding the mistakes that have led them to this point, the front office has a chance to optimize for both the present and the future by making a trade to improve its roster right now.
Here’s why I still believe they should do so.
The Lakers have always defined themselves by two things: having stars and winning championships. At the end of the Kobe Bryant era, they signed him to a much-maligned extension, which overpaid Bryant relative to his on-court production but demonstrated loyalty to their stars, a tendency that played better to NBA players than the media. Fast forward a few years, the Lakers were being openly mocked by media personalities for the so-called “decline of the Laker mystique” after being spurned by a few superstar free agents.
Then LeBron James came to save the day, signing a long-term contract and paving the way for AD to follow. A title came shortly thereafter. However, the NBA is about what’s next, and the Lakers have run a clinic on how to dismantle a championship team, making 2020 seem more and more like a fluke.
With Kobe, all it took was money to value their aging star. With LeBron, they need to find a way to maximize the twilight years of someone who is still elite at age 38 and has started to openly discuss his desire to play for meaningful stakes again. LeBron is probably the worst superstar to alienate as well, as doing damage with him and his agency at Klutch Sports could rapidly undo a decades-long reputation the Lakers have built for working in partnership with superstars.
While GM LeBron certainly signed off on the Westbrook trade and other key moves that have hurt this year’s roster, he has been remarkably hands-off and trusting in Los Angeles when compared to most of his NBA career. In comparison to his year-to-year “feet to the fire” contracts with the Cavs, he signed a four-year deal out of the gate with the Lakers, and his recent extension was signed so late he can’t be traded until this summer. He was unsuccessful at forcing the Lakers’ hand at the trade deadline last year, and I am borderline shocked this year’s extension didn’t come with an ironclad, unwritten requirement to upgrade the team before he put pen to paper.
LeBron is playing the best basketball a 38-year-old has ever played in the league and could still lead a championship squad. He has a PER of 24, good for 14th in the league, and just threw down a 47-point triple-double on his birthday this week. He is leading the Lakers with an astonishing 36 minutes per game, producing 28.5 points, 50% from the field, 8.1 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 1.6 steals/blocks. Despite an ungodly amount of minutes and games played, he is arguably still a top-10 player and is poised to break Kareem’s scoring record before the end of the season. For him to do so on a team not even competing for a play-in spot would be an organizational embarrassment.
The Road to Mediocrity
Arguments that the Lakers are out of touch and operating from within a dangerous echo chamber have been increasingly validated lately. Last year, Jeanie complained about her “expensive” roster underperforming, indicating she didn’t understand that you can’t trade for a 3rd superstar and avoid a heavy luxury tax bill. More and more reports have recently implied that the team doesn’t want to double down on its “mistakes” this season.
I remember being so excited when Jeanie finally wrestled control of the franchise from her brother, but I am losing faith in her leadership and this team’s direction. As the rest of the league seems to be getting more sophisticated and armed with deeper pockets, the Lakers appear to at least be in stasis, if not full-on reverse.
The front office has criminally mismanaged its asset base since the championship. The Westbrook trade does not need to be rehashed here, but puzzling free-agent classes without shooting or wing depth have compounded the problem. Pelinka signed both Talen Horton-Tucker and Austin Reaves to shorter contracts to avoid an extra $1-2 million in salary per year, but will require (and have required) big paydays for young talent a year sooner than would have been necessary if they had used cap space to give those players three-year deals. The apparent mandate to save money in 2021 (an asinine decision in the face of also trading for Westbrook) cost the Lakers valuable assets in Alex Caruso and Dennis Schröder for nothing in return. At the very least, they would have served as contract flotsam for future trades. These bad decisions are extra costly for a team with three supermax contracts and no financial margin for error.
Moral imperative to give LeBron a chance aside, I think it would be much worse not to go all-in this year. The Lakers may have to swap their first round pick to the Pelicans this year, and give them either their 2024 or 2025 selections, but otherwise have first-round picks every year moving forward. There is ZERO incentive to tank right now.
Wouldn’t it be more embarrassing to hand Victor Wembayama, Scoot Henderson or a Thompson twin to the Pels than take a swing to do right by LeBron and avoid giving up a top pick? Ignoring bad-faith arguments about sunk costs, the Lakers are at a crossroads, within three games of both the play-in and a bottom-four record.
Taking the Leap
The amazing thing is that it is still not too late to turn around the ship. The negative first: this roster is flawed and has a lack of depth at key positions. Ham is still coming up the learning curve and making rookie mistakes. The Lakers have survived being historically bad, as in the worst team in years, in the clutch — and third quarters — thus far this season. Injuries are again a big problem for this team. But hope springs eternal!
Putting on my purple-and-gold-colored glasses, the Anthony Davis injury news looks less than catastrophic, especially since LeBron has led the team to a 5-5 record without him. In fact, LeBron has been handily winning his minutes in this stretch, but the team is hemorrhaging points when he’s off the floor. But even in losses, the Lakers are not getting blown out. We’ve seen them compete against elite teams, but run out of gas like they did against Boston at home. If AD can pick back up at anything close to his pre-injury form, this team has a real chance to gel and make some noise if they add even a tiny bit of help so that those two stars can simply not have arguably the worst supporting case in the league.
My point here is that it doesn’t take ANOTHER superstar to change this team, but some additional quality depth. The Lakers have assets at their disposal to get something done – the Westbrook/Nunn/Beverley expiring contracts, and tradeable 2027 and 2029 first round picks. Yes, Bradley Beal would be nice, but so would Buddy Hield and Myles Turner providing additional spacing and additional rim protection. If those two are off the table, Jae Crowder would give them size on the wing they just don’t have today. Bojan Bogdanovic would have solved lots of problems offensively already.
They might be five games better and fighting for home court if they had made ANY of those changes before the season and bolstered their dumpster fire of a depth chart. And looking ahead, this may be their only chance to acquire real assets for next year anyway. Despite a plethora of expiring contracts, the Lakers are only projected to have a maximum of $35M in space, less than a max contract, if they renounce all of their free agents. This path would also require another complete roster overhaul around LeBron and AD in one of the weaker free-agent classes in recent memory. If the Lakers instead viewed the trade deadline as “early free agency,” they could bolster their roster this season, have flexibility to take on more salary, and avoid competing in a shallow free agent pool.
Ultimately, going all-in while five games under .500 certainly requires a leap of faith. But LeBron and AD deserve the chance to make good on one. Injuries are always a risk with aging stars, but they have both looked like all-world players this season when healthy. Given the team’s lack of incentives to tank and the few other avenues to meaningfully improve, taking a calculated risk may even be the smart bet here.