The Lakers traded D’Angelo Russell. And while I’ve tried to make sense of it, both in long form and with our buddy Pete Zayas in our latest podcast, the fact is that there’s actually little to try to actually analyze here.
The Lakers traded a highly talented young player who, for reasons that will likely leak over the next several weeks and months, the team no longer believed in to be a long term piece for the franchise. We can debate those reasons all we want or, more precisely, debate how much those reasons should matter considering the return value netted, but I’ll save you that for now. My cliff-notes opinion is pretty straight forward: I think the Lakers sold low and if this was the best you could do in a trade right now the Lakers would have been better off not dealing him even if the ultimate goal was to actually deal him.
What’s done is done, though. Oh, I’ll surely wring my hands over how the team managed this situation and Russell as a player — not to mention his own faults which impacted the approach they took — but to worry about that now is somewhat secondary.
The more pressing question is what do the Lakers actually do now?
I started to touch on this in my analysis of the trade:
The Lakers are getting out from under one of the worst contracts in the league and acquiring a good (but not great) starting big man who can serve as a one year place holder. They clearly have some irons in the fire for future moves, ranging from Paul George lined up to plays on bigger free agents in the future. They also get the 27th pick overall, in a draft where there is likely to be some decent talent available at that point in the draft. They could also try to package the #27 and #28 picks to move up to the middle part of the draft, thought it’s unclear whether that is part of a plan or not. Also, it would not surprise me if the team used both of those picks in a deal for George.
It would make sense that the George deal is lined up, though there are multiple murmurs about how close the team is to actually making that deal. NBA.com’s David Aldridge reported that the Lakers reached out to the Kings about acquiring the 5th and 10th picks in Thursday’s draft in a swap for the #2 selection, then off-loaded one of those picks with the aforementioned numbers 27 and 28 picks for George. But that won’t work if the Kings say now. Meanwhile, Mark Medina reports that the teams are at a standstill over an offer that includes one of Julius Randle or Jordan Clarkson along with the #27 and #28 picks.
So, are the Lakers going to deal for George or not? We’ll just have to wait and, at this point, I won’t speculate either way or worry about what happens if they don’t. What I will say, though, is that trading for George actually has little to do with the Russell trade and brings me back to the original question in the title of this post.
The Lakers have successfully cleared cap space for the summer of 2018. Mozgov and Russell would have counted for a combined $23 million on the cap that summer and now that is replaced with Lopez’s expiring deal. The Lakers will have spending power that summer and, with some salary cap maneuvering, can approach upwards of $60 million in cap space to entice free agents. Granted, this number dramatically decreases if the Lakers actually trade for Paul George, but, again, I can’t worry about that now.
All of this speaks to a confidence the team has in being able to recruit a star player (or two) next summer. Which, if we’re being honest, sounds a lot like the plan the previous regime had but was not able to execute. Of course Jim/Mitch aren’t Magic/Pelinka. The latter duo offers a charisma and cachet which has altered the perception of the team moving forward. They’re supposed to be able to reel in the big fish and are acting like they will be able to.
My only point here is that they actually better be able to. Because, when it comes right down to it, the Lakers traded one of their best young players for the right to chase a more established star. Similar to how the Celtics balked on selecting at #1 overall in favor of drafting at #3 and picking up a future pick, the Lakers need to be right about their ability to turn what they’ve gained into something as good or better than what they gave up. Regardless of what anyone thinks of Russell, he’s actually a productive NBA player while cap space never won a game for anyone.
So, for now, we wait. We wait to see if the team can turn financial flexibility and cap space into multiple star players. We wait to see if they can creatively build a contending roster. We wait to see if their player evaluations and projections on players kept vs. the ones sent away turn out to be on the money. We wait to not only see the other shoe to drop, but to see if it brings an upward trajectory to push this franchise forward.
In other words, we wait to see if whatever comes next is actually worth it. Because the Lakers had the opportunity to be patient, but they passed on that to pursue this path and make (or at least set up) their move now.