I told you on Monday that the Lakers should not be eager to make a trade before today’s trade deadline. The logic was that the players who were rumored to be available by the Lakers front office — Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr. — could all be traded after the season (or, in the case of Randle, have his rights renounced in free agency if the goal was to open up cap space).
That said, as discussed on our most recent podcast, if the Lakers were going to make a deal, it should check a couple of boxes in order to not be a “bad trade”. Those boxes? That they not take back any long term salary and that they acquire draft pick compensation. I thought the likelihood of the Lakers achieving this would be low.
I was wrong.
The draft pick the Lakers receive will be protected, but those terms are not yet known. Anything beyond lottery protection is less advantageous to the Lakers, but we’ll be able to speak on that more once we have the final detail on that specific aspect of the trade. (UPDATE: The pick the Cavs send the Lakers is only top-3 protected, so it will surely convey this June.)
As it stands then, this deal checks the aforementioned boxes. Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye are both expiring contracts. Frye earns $7.4 million this season and Thomas earns $6.3 million this season. Add in the draft pick compensation going in the Lakers direction and they’ve made out of this deal with exactly what they’d want in any trade.
Yes, they paid a price for that (which we’ll get to), but you have to give in order to get in this league and this is why trades can be hard to make as teams often jostle to ensure they “win” a deal. I’d argue both sides got what they wanted and that’s why I’m writing this right now. But I digress.
There are several parts of this deal to consider, so let’s get to them one by one.
The expiring contracts of Frye and Thomas mean the Lakers are now out from Jordan Clarkson’s contract — a total of (about) $25 million over next season and the year after. They also shed some small salary with Nance, but that’s of less consequence for the moment, but plays a bigger role next summer and beyond when he would become a restricted free agent.
A report on Tuesday said the Lakers were shifting their focus to the 2019 free agency class, an implication that they were not confident they’d be able to get off money this summer that would allow them to free up the necessary space to go after more than one top free agent. Clarkson’s salary was a key piece of that puzzle; an impediment that is no longer there.
Per ESPN’s Bobby Marks, this trade gets the Lakers up to $46.9 million in cap space for next summer and moves them much closer to being able to chase two max players. If the team were to stretch Luol Deng and/or renounce rights to Julius Randle, that number could grow all the way up to $69 million this summer — enough to sign 2 max players outright. That only happens with both Deng and Randle removed, of course, but it’s now in play with Clarkson’s contract being the first domino to fall.
As it stands now, however, the Lakers are back in position to make serious moves this summer even if it’s not two max guys. They could chase a max guy AND add a player above the class of MLE should they want to use all their space. This could end up being really useful. Outside of that, they’ve also created more flexibility for this summer and the summer of 2019; they’re now able to shift gears even more easily and “rent” their cap space and get assets that way.
Players are not just their cap figures or salary cap savings, however. Clarkson and Nance are both key rotation players on a team that’s won 11 of their last 15 games and playing their best basketball of the season. Clarkson has been a bit up and down this year, but his overall consistency has been better than season’s past and he’s blossomed in this recent stretch by showing more playmaking chops while still carrying a heavy scoring burden for the team’s second unit.
While it’s easy to point at Nance’s relatively limited ceiling and shallower growth arc to this stage in his career, it’d be a mistake to cast him as anything less than a good NBA rotation player who does a lot of little things which help his team in the aggregate. Yes, he could be more aggressive offensively and there are times he frustrates with his indecision as a shooter, but his backline communication defensively, his work on the offensive glass, his hustle to dive for loose balls, and his general team first attitude are all things which make him a player any team should want on their roster.
Losing these guys hurts and, in a vacuum, I think the Lakers are going to miss what they brought to the team for the rest of this year. I get both players had flaws, but both were also helpful in tangible and intangible ways. Those traits are now on the Cavs.
What of Thomas and Frye?
This is where things get interesting. If you’d have told me a year ago the Lakers could get Isaiah Thomas, a player on the fringes of the MVP conversation and as dynamic a scorer that existed in the league for Clarkson and Nance, I’d have laughed at you. That version of Thomas was an absolute killer, a crunch timer Terminator who was key in carrying the Celtics to the #1 seed in the East.
This year’s Thomas, though, has not been that guy. After off-season hip surgery, Thomas has returned a step slower, with less burst, and with a shakier jumper. He’s still using a ton of possessions, but the efficiency is sub-standard and he’s been a drag on every Cavs lineup he’s been a part of. Add in his bad defense and Thomas has been mostly terrible.
The question is, though, can Thomas regain any of his previous form in this final stretch? If the answer is yes, he can help the Lakers. If the answer is no, I don’t see this going well — regardless of role. We’ll write more about how I think the Lakers could best use Thomas moving forward, but I hope he’s brought along in a manner which encourages him to play his style, though not necessarily with the starting group. A bench role, basically taking over for Clarkson exactly, would be a good place to begin and then ramp things up from there if things go well. No disrespect to Thomas, but he’s now been traded twice in 8 months so it’s probably good for him to adjust as much, if not more, than his new team does.
As for Frye, he is what he is — a fine stretch big who can space the floor expertly while not giving you a lot on defense or the glass. He can be easily slotted into the role as the team’s 4th big man, behind Brook Lopez, Julius Randle, and Kyle Kuzma. Frye can soak up 15 minutes a night as a back up C, play next to Randle or Kuzma effectively, give LA’s guards/wings another pick and pop partner, and create 5-out lineups if he ever sees the floor with Ball, KCP/Hart, Ingram, and Kuzma. Lineups like those should be able to score effectively even if the defense will suffer on the backline and have trouble on the defensive glass.
Overall, I think this is a good deal. The Lakers have cleared salary for the following summers, get a 1st round pick that is likely to be in a part of the draft where they’ve had success, and even have an asset like Thomas’ Bird Rights heading into the upcoming free agency period. They sold high on Clarkson and used Nance’s rookie scale salary as an asset before he would have become a restricted free agent. These are smart plays, even if it cost the team useful players who fans like (and who, I’d imagine, the FO and coaches like too).
What this deal does, though, is further put the focus onto what Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have done and want to do in the future. Clarkson and Nance being gone open up space for Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma — players Magic and Pelinka drafted. These rookies have shown they can be good players in this league (with Kuzma showing even more than that) and getting them more time of the floor isn’t a bad thing in the big picture. It’s also hard to ignore the symbolism of this deal jettisoning two of the Jim/Mitch guys in favor of players Magic/Rob drafted. Coincidence or not, this team is moving closer to the image the latter want to build.
A quick note on Julius Randle is also required here. Besides Brandon Ingram, Randle is the lone holdover from the previous regime. On the one hand, trading Nance and getting Frye only makes Randle’s role more clear now and it could be argued the Lakers could be investing more into him for the future. Randle’s cap hold and Clarkson’s salary for next year were nearly the exact same number on the cap this summer. Moving Clarkson could be seen as a way to hold onto Randle — or at least give the Lakers the option to do so longer into the FA period while they negotiate with the stars they chase.
I do not have a sense either way of what will happen with Randle, but these are the things to consider as we move into the end of the trade deadline and beyond. If he’s still a Laker at 12:01 Pacific on Thursday, I’ll be very interested in how things play out in July.
And, really, that applies to the Lakers as a whole now and not just Randle. They are back in the mix for 2018 Free Agency and beyond and have shaken up their team to make that happen. How that plays the rest of the season and impacts the on-court product will of course matter too, but my guess is if you asked the front office about this, they’re less worried about that than, say, the fans might be.