For much of the early portion of the season, the Lakers looked and played like a band out of tune. The music was passable in the sense that they kept their head above water. But they weren’t humming as efficiently as you’d hoped. And because of it, they started to become background noise to the sizzling fajitas coming out of the kitchen in the form of the league’s emerging young teams.
A big reason for their flat play was the sheer fact that they were without key instruments. For as sharp as LeBron James and Anthony Davis have been to start the year, missing multiple members of the horns section will churn out some ugly stuff.
Fortunately, the band has finally gotten back together. For the first time this campaign, the Lakers have played their last few games at full health with the sole exception of Gabe Vincent. The benefits of getting nearly all their wing and forward depth at once in Jarred Vanderbilt, Cam Reddish,and Rui Hachiumura have been instantaneous.
The rotation has bulked up exponentially from a size standpoint, lineups are suddenly more balanced and the image of the offseason roster that initially excited so many has finally started to come into focus.
From a results perspective, the team’s reinforcements have only served as an additional gust to what has been an upswing of late. After pulverizing the New Orleans Pelicans, 133-89, on Thursday to advance to the In-Season Tournament championship game, the Lakers have won seven of their last ten and find themselves only a half-game out of the two seed.
The timing of things and players falling into place is also important when looking ahead both on and off the court. In terms of the short term, once the team finishes their tournament play against the Indiana Pacers, the rest of December will present some challenges.
According to Positive Residual, the Lakers have the 7th most difficult remaining strength of schedule this month as of this article. Zooming in further, beyond just having to face off against stiffer competition, the team will also mostly have to do so away from Los Angeles.
Of their next 12 contests — excluding their championship game in Las Vegas — eight will come on the road. As a result, the Lakers will also travel the sixth most miles in the league during this stretch, and to make matters worse, also have three sets of back-to-backs in the next few weeks alone.
One of the best ways for a team to combat the opposition and fatigue alike during a rough stretch like this is by relying on depth. After being previously short-handed and limited in their bench options, having extra capable bodies should provide some needed optionality.
Outside of the benefits of being healthy on the court, the Lakers rounding back to full strength should also similarly help them off the hardwood as well.
As a result of their tepid start to the season, and simply through being the Lakers, the team has once again found themselves in trade rumors. The most prominent name they have been linked to has been Chicago Bulls’ wing, Zach LaVine, who the team has reported “real interest” in acquiring.
Although this is not the first time the Lakers and LaVine have been linked to one other, the smoke surrounding this go-around feels more dense. The most recent indicator of a deal potentially transpiring is the news that LaVine will be shelved for at least “3-4 weeks” due to a foot injury, according to Shams Charania of the Athletic.
While the actuality and severity of the injury are privy information, the timing of his expected return only further stokes the flame as it lines up almost exactly when free-agents that were signed this past summer will become trade eligible.
“He’s going to be ending up missing a total of at least 4-5 weeks... Zach LaVine and the Bulls have been open to exploring trade avenues, but for now he will remain shelved”@ShamsCharania with the latest on LaVine’s foot injury— Run It Back (@RunItBackFDTV) December 7, 2023
: https://t.co/qYBPWhXIrz pic.twitter.com/nkQTN86Z65
Due to league restrictions, players like D’Angelo Russell, Taurean Prince and Gabe Vincent can not be traded until Dec. 15th. And for those who signed contract extensions in the offseason like Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura, they have to wait until Jan. 15th before being moved.
Given LaVine’s robust deal, essentially any trade package would need to include one of Russell or Hachimura for the Lakers to remain under the apron.
A lot can ultimately change by the time LaVine returns to the floor and the Lakers’ players become trade-eligible. But by being healthy now, the front office will at least get a chance to evaluate what they have in-house before deciding to shuffle the deck again.
It’s inarguably a sensible path and an approach the Lakers will reportedly take heading into the new year.
In his recent piece for The Athletic, Jovan Buha shared details on how the team will navigate the market in the coming weeks.
Don’t expect a move immediately after Dec. 15. The Lakers plan to take a patient approach to the trade market, team sources not authorized to speak publicly tell The Athletic, and would prefer to see what their group looks like whole before making a monumental roster decision. They’re still evaluating their needs and will continue to monitor the league, including potential fire sales in Toronto, Washington, Utah, Brooklyn and/or Charlotte that could make useful rotation players available.
If recent play is any indication, a healthy version of this Lakers’ roster could catch fire and may only need slight upgrades around the margins versus a full-blown remodel. The team has been burned before by rash decisions and they can’t afford to make another.
However, if things suddenly go south, there will at least be some evidence to diagnose what this team’s ceiling is or where the issues lie. By also monitoring the league as the report suggests, other trade opportunities may also present themselves in the upcoming weeks and months the team may pursue outside of LaVine.
Regardless of how the Lakers proceed both on and off the court going forward, they are about to test whether or not the best ability is availability. Fortunately for them, they at least will have a full band at their disposal to assess and listen to.
You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.