Since claiming the In-Season Tournament (IST) title with a hard-fought win over the Pacers that featured great play on both sides of the ball, the Lakers have gone 1-3 with losses to a Mavs team missing Kyrie Irving, a Spurs team that hadn’t won in its 18 previous games and a Knicks team that had just been blown out by the Clippers a couple of nights prior.
Their lone win? A game against those same Spurs who nearly came all the way back in a furious 4th quarter rally that erased a 20-point lead but ultimately fell short.
As if those results weren’t self-evident, this is a Lakers group that is clearly struggling, showing signs of both mental and physical fatigue that come from not only an early season push towards achieving the goal of winning the IST but from the injuries that have persisted throughout the team’s first 20+ games.
Players have been in and out of the lineup, and even when they have returned it is clear they have been compromised. And the players who have been healthy have fluctuated between being engaged and not, with the latter leading to the types of mistakes and general casualness that isn’t good enough vs. a motivated opponent.
Fans — or even outside observers — of the Lakers never need a drastic downturn to start to explore what the trade market might deliver, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Trade speculation and the fodder of what the team needs to do to more fully cement itself within the upper tier of title contenders is a constant talking point for most Lakers teams, with only those clearly hovering near the top of the standings possibly exempt from such discussions about who should be the next player shipped out for the shiny new upgrade that will take the team to the next level.
Of course, actually making a trade in the NBA is hard. The internet might be full of trade machine maestros who have a mastery of the collective bargaining agreement and understanding of the rules that govern deals, but the ones that get a tweet from Woj and are confirmed by the team are the product of both sides getting what they want out of the exchange. Talks that can produce this outcome are much rarer than the feverish delight of the ongoing rumor mill churn that fully engulfs fans from now through the middle of February, but that doesn’t stop any of us from partaking.
Beyond these logistics that complicate the execution of a deal, there’s also the larger point that, despite the binary nature of swapping out a player or players from your roster for those from another, deals are rarely binary in nature. What I mean is that we often view trades through the lens of what skill or attribute a team needs and then finding a deal in which that is acquired.
But, reducing players to a single trait is not realistic and it’s not how basketball works. Sure, a player can have a dominant part of their game that headlines their profile as talent, but most every player brings an entire skill set with them that has multiple strengths and weaknesses; that has layers of what they can do to help or hinder a team.
For the Lakers, then, it is important to view things through this more nuanced lens rather than only through the binary one in which the team gets the one skill they seek to help the team and, maybe even more importantly, in what they are giving up to get that skill and how that impacts the current dynamic of the team.
For example, I’m in total agreement with the idea of the team’s overarching needs being better rim protection/more reliable center play from AD’s backups, a downhill threat from the perimeter and more shooting, as Silver Screen and Roll’s own Alex Regla recently wrote. Anyone who has watched the Lakers through their first 25+ games can see these issues cropping up repeatedly and they’ve also been critical in recent losses to the Spurs and Knicks.
That said, in trying to obtain these new skill sets, it’s important to closely examine what needs to be given up to get the player(s) who possess them, what the strengths are of those players being sent out and what nuance exists in both the outgoing and incoming players skill sets that must then be accounted for in the new version of the team.
For the Lakers, then, it’s been widely held belief that D’Angelo Russell is the player most likely to be traded away in a deal in which the Lakers are trying to improve their team. Whether it’s for a headlining player like Zach LaVine or someone with a lower profile, it’s difficult to imagine a deal like that getting done without D’Lo in the fold.
But when trading away Russell, remember to account for the fact that he’s the team’s second-best passer and offensive organizer behind LeBron James. In fact, I’d argue his passing and general feel for how to get teammates the ball in positions to score is his skill with the highest floor and least amount of variance night to night.
If you trade him, you lose this skill. And if the player you trade for is, say, an excellent scorer who can really shoot from deep or has a great defensive motor and can handle the ball but isn’t a good playmaker or passer, you may improve your team in some ways but you’ve weakened it in a place where, outside of LeBron and maybe Austin Reaves, that passing skill was already pretty shallow.
Will this matter in the big picture? Maybe, maybe not! There’s potential for Bron or Austin to take on more responsibility and the team doesn’t miss a beat, just as there is potential for the opposite. But accounting for these variables and how the landscape of your roster changes when executing these sorts of swaps is important.
Similar ideas ring true for players besides Russell, too. Maybe the trade you’re proposing involves moving off of Rui Hachimura or Gabe Vincent or Taurean Prince. All three of them are current rotation players — or, in Gabe’s case, project to be once he’s back from injury — who bring certain skills to the team and prove helpful in specific ways.
But, for example, if you trade Rui, are you still able to put together lineups with enough collective size? Have you accounted for how losing him impacts your transition game? If you get rid of Prince, are you replacing his ability to not only hit above-the-break threes at a high rate but to attack closeouts and finish at the rim when he is run off the line?
These are skills that currently help the Lakers and losing them must be a part of the thought process and, ultimately, accounted for.
Any trade isn’t just a swap of players and it certainly isn’t just for the things they do well or the positive parts of their game. The negative ones matter too. It’s all a piece of the puzzle that, when everything shakes out, a team hopes works in their favor in the aggregate.
When the Lakers traded Russ for D’Lo, Michael Beasley, and Jarred Vanderbilt, they got multiple contributing players who helped them close out their regular season strong, make the playoffs and, in Russell and Vando, are still on the team contributing in positive ways.
Their collective skill sets improved the team in the aggregate in ways that inarguably made the deal a success.
But, in trading away Westbrook the Lakers also lost a combination of downhill force offensively and creative passing/playmaking in both transition and in the pick and roll. And while last year’s team made up for those aspects with Dennis Schröder, Lonnie Walker IV, LeBron taking on more responsbility in those areas, it is arguable that they missed this aspect of his game and it wasn’t totally made up for even with these other players doing their best to fill in.
And now, on this year’s team, with Dennis in Toronto and Lonnie in Brooklyn, that downhill ability is missed even more.
There is no such thing as a perfect team, of course. And you’re never going to be able to build a team where every skill is accounted for at a high level and every weakness is diminished to the point of it never hampering the team’s ability to win at the highest level.
Worrying about whether or not you can cover all these bases shouldn’t be the guiding force for not making a deal — especially one for a player or players who can move the needle and can give you that aggregate win you seek when making a trade.
But, when thinking of how to improve the Lakers, consider how the balance sheet of total skills is impacted in the trades being considered and executed. Because when those things are too out of balance, the team can and will suffer — despite your best intentions.
You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.