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The Lakers need to seize the best of what’s left

After striking out on Kyrie Irving, where might the Lakers turn for their much-needed in-season upgrade?

Los Angeles Lakers v Toronto Raptors Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

Now that the dust has settled on Kyrie Irving’s deal to Dallas, and the ship with Indiana’s Buddy Hield and Myles Turner may have gone silently into the night this past summer, the Lakers have almost certainly missed out on plans A and B.

However, with a nearly 40-year-old LeBron about to take the NBA’s all-time scoring title from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar while still playing at an All-NBA level, the Lakers absolutely owe it to LeBron to afford him the opportunity to play the winning basketball he desires — especially as the self-ascribed “caretakers” of his legacy. To live up to that responsibility, while Thursday’s trade deadline closes in on them, the Lakers need to figure out a Plan C, and fast.

Though the Hornets, Spurs, and Jazz might be the market’s most obvious cellar-dwelling sellers, the chips they have to offer are currently wildly overpriced and broadly flawed as mostly one-way or the other kinds of players. Still, a pair of teams in the tier just above have at the very least signaled an interest in retooling for the future, suggesting they might be willing to part with some ancillary pieces for the right price, especially as the clock winds down towards 12 PM PST of February 9.

In the East, the Raptors have struggled through a disappointing season — the preseason buzz had them as a lock to clear Vegas’s 46.5 predicted wins, but they’re five games below .500 and in 4.5 games removed from a guaranteed playoff seed. If Toronto decides to toss in the towel and target a top ticket in the 2023 Draft, they might as well get off of expensive vets who don’t quite align with a timeline they might want to skew younger.

In particular, a pair of guards with sweet strokes and some two-way appeal should interest the Lakers if they can pry either one from the Raptors’ clutches. OG Anunoby is probably too rich for the Lakers’ blood, but either Gary Trent Jr. or Fred VanVleet would fit better next to LeBron and AD than the “here today, gone tomorrow” production of Russell Westbrook this season.

Yet another son of a former player who played against a rookie-year LeBron James, Gary Trent Jr. is exactly the kind of movement shooter and off-ball scorer who has thrived next to James since his time in Miami. This season, he’s making 37% of more than seven threes per game; a pair of marks he is now clearing for the third straight season. Unlike some of the other score-first guards on the market, Trent has a track record of actually defending. He’s a poor rebounder, but he generates turnovers at an excellent clip, which — combined with his on-the-run marksmanship — would add fuel to the Lakers increasingly dominant transition attack.

Alternatively, VanVleet is older and will likely opt-out of his deal and into free agency this offseason, but there is reason to believe a change of scenery could help him turn things around. Last season, VanVleet was one of the NBA’s best shooters, canning almost 38% of his threes compared to this season’s 34% mark. However, he’s got one of the toughest shot diets in the league as one of Toronto’s primary creators (12th percentile 3PT shot quality) and is making enough of them to earn an “A” perimeter shooting grade from BBall Index. Despite the slight decline in scoring efficiency, VanVleet is still scoring nearly 20 points per and remains a rock solid defender, using his strong base and high motor to bother opposing backcourts.

With the Lakers, Fred would get better shots, benefitting from LeBron’s playmaking and scoring gravity as well as play in higher-profile games, feeding into the competitive spirit that has helped buoy Toronto through rocky stretches since winning the 2019 championship.

Out westward, the Thunder have wildly outperformed expectations to similar results. Right now, they sit a trio of games below sea-level at 25-28, a half-game above the Lakers before they square-off at Crypto neé Staples tonight. For now, they lay in wait as their young core grows around budding superstar Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, especially with Chet Holmgren due to debut next season — along with whoever they select with their pair of firsts in this upcoming draft... and four the next year... and four the year after that... and three more in 2026.

If they too decide to call it quits on a playoff push in 2023, they might want to swap out either (or both) of their oldest players for future draft equity, especially since each of them is on a deal set to expire at the end of this season.

The younger (and better) of the pair is Kenrich Williams, a 6’6” swingman who has earned the nickname “Kenny Hustle” for a reason. He’s not the volume scorer that either of the Raptors’ backcourt players is, but he’s a high quality plug-and-play wing who doesn’t take things off the table; a complementary player who fits next to the Lakers’ two true superstars. Specifically, he’s shooting 39.8% on threes this season (35.6% career) on 3.7 attempts per game, which is plenty good enough to space the floor without the requisite volume to bend the floor with his own gravity. Aside from his excellent rebounding rate, he’s also taken a step back this season in terms of BBall Index’s defensive impact metric, falling from an “A-” D-LEBRON to an “F” this year, though that could have something to do with his increasing matchup difficulty and year-to-year disparity between his own age and his frequently teenage teammates’. Still, he’s big, plays hard, and can shoot well enough to avoid cramping the Lakers’ offense, a trio of skills scarcely found up and down the team’s pre-deadline roster.

The oldest player on the Thunder is one who Rob Pelinka has already traded for once, and might be wise to do so again if the price is right. At 31 years old, on an expiring deal, and playing just 14.4 minutes per game, Muscala should be as expendable as ever for the Thunder. For the Lakers, he could play beside Anthony Davis or without him as a high quality 3-point shooter and rim protector, a combo of skills that Thomas Bryant and Damian Jones lack at least one of, respectively. He’s not a star, but he grades out like one:

Mike Muscala’s LEBRON grades via BBall Index’s Player Profiles tool.

Considering his minutes load, it’d be unreasonable to extrapolate his impact out into actual All-Star quality production, but his shooting and rim-protecting abilities are highly complimentary to the heliocentric basketball that the Lakers play through LeBron, and would be a welcome addition to the rotation as another pitch to throw at opposing frontcourts.

The Lakers should not make any deal for the wrong price. In filling the hole created by the Russell Westbrook trade, the Lakers must remain maintain the reasonableness they demonstrated in refusing to empty the chest for Kyrie Irving as the deadline nears. While making a deal that boosts their championship odds is near essential for the franchise, they must not do so in a way that fails to vault them into contender status while also precluding them from doing so this summer.

The Lakers are between a rock and a hard place here with few assets to improve the roster and time running out to do so. However, threading the needle may be necessary to maximizing not only LeBron’s legacy, but maintaining the franchise’s pole position as the league’s premier destination for superstars. Success on both fronts is essential to solving the Lakers’ biggest outstanding existential questions.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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