The Lakers are currently 10 games under .500 with a 21-31 record. They completed a 5 game road trip by winning 3 games, including an excellent win over the Celtics and a nail-biter over a Thunder team that had stomped them by an average of 30 points in their two previous meetings this year.
The Lakers did all this without Lonzo Ball, with Brandon Ingram a bit banged up, and (for the final two games) a lineup shift which saw Josh Hart inserted into the starting lineup and Tyler Ennis relegated to DNP-You’re Playing Like Tyler Ennis status.
The Lakers are making progress. It’s not always linear — hello, thrashing at the hands of the Magic — but it’s progress nonetheless. This is the backdrop and context surrounding the team as the organization approaches the February 8th trade deadline — only a little over 3 days from when I’m writing this. That’s close!
Before we go any further, here is what we know — be it because it’s been reported enough or because there’s enough smoke in the room to tell us there’s fire — about the Lakers intentions heading into Thursday’s deadline:
- The Lakers are open for business and ready to make a deal.
- Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson are the most discussed names, but Larry Nance Jr. could also be had. The team has given up on trying to trade Luol Deng.
- The Lakers want expiring contracts and/or draft picks for their assets. The only reason to make a trade now is to clear salary cap space for this upcoming summer. It seems the Lakers preference would be to get picks and salary relief in the same deal rather than having to make multiple deals to accomplish this.
Let’s tackle these one by one.
While the Lakers are ready to deal, I don’t think they’re especially eager to. Or, at least, I don’t think they should be eager to. Beyond the team playing well of late, the Lakers should be smart enough to understand market forces and to understand that the assets they want to jettison can all be moved later and/or have different ways to being removed from their 2018-19 cap sheet.
The difference between a Clarkson trade now vs. one in the summer is minimal. Yes, in theory, Clarkson could help a playoff team that needs help on the wing. However, I’d argue the presence of Lou Williams and Tyreke Evans in this market depresses Clarkson’s value. There are only so many established/hopeful playoff teams that need players like this (Philly? Cleveland? OKC?). A limited market + several players of this archetype being available makes a deal for the Lakers less desirable since the return is not likely to be in their favor. Waiting until the summer could bring more options — especially when teams’ cap situations are more clear and FA dollar values for these types of guys are more established.
As for Randle, the noise around his status in LA is disheartening for people like me who think he should be a piece of their future. Maybe I’ll write more about this later, but Randle is a more unique piece than some of his teammates who are available and a combination of factors could make him relatively affordable on his next contract.
Ignoring that for a moment, however, the Lakers are not likely to get a good return on Randle before Thursday. His restricted FA status already depresses his value as teams do not want to give up real assets for a the right to sign a player to his next contract. The fact the Lakers — via leaks or simply from persistent reports sourced from around the league — have framed Randle as not a part of the team’s future further lowers his value as teams don’t want to pay competitive prices for items which are likely to end up in the recycling bin come July 1st.
This could always change — it only takes one good offer and teams supposedly have interest — but unless the Lakers get exactly what they want, they know they’d be selling low on a good player. Wiser minds should know better. Should. Additionally, the Lakers could always simply renounce Randle’s right’s this summer if they need the cap space. That eliminates the return of an asset for a good player, but if some of offers pouring in are accurately reported (the Pels reportedly dangled 2 second round picks) then maybe you’re not actually missing out on much.
Another option would be to sign and trade Randle this summer. These deals are less frequent now that S&T’s hard-cap the team receiving the signed-and-traded player, but considering the dearth of teams with cap space this summer, the RFA market could be a place to negotiate viable swaps that help both teams if the incumbent is set on moving on but wanting assets in return to relinquish their right to match contract offers of their RFA.
Getting back to the present day, the Lakers asking prices of picks and expiring salary are not likely to be met in the same deal for any of their players.
A report from The Athletic said the Pelicans offered their 1st round pick and Omer Asik for Jordan Clarkson, but the Lakers did not bite. A trade like that is salary neutral (Asik and Clarkson make almost the same money next year) and my guess is the Lakers did not want to have to find other avenues to get rid of Asik later even if they got a pick that could end up in the teens this June. Negative assets like Asik are difficult to move, which the team knows first hand from their trade of Timofey Mozgov and their inability to find a taker for Deng which does not bankrupt them of future picks or current young players.
In summarizing all this, then, the Lakers seem to be in between a rock and a hard place heading into Thursday. Everyone knows the Lakers plan for this upcoming summer — Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka talked about it outright last June and no amount of walking those statements back is going to erase those original comments. Teams are always going to look out for their own interests first, so I think the premise of “teams won’t want to help the Lakers clear cap space” can be overblown. If a deal makes sense for a team, they’ll make it even if it the deal helps the Lakers inch closer to two max slots.
However, making outright bad deals isn’t something teams are going to jump at doing. Maybe if there’s a star player involved or if there’s a real desperateness (like Detroit and Blake Griffin), teams can be convinced to take on money or give up assets or both. But that’s going to be rare.
Especially in this climate. Consider this report from Brian Windhorst and Bobby Marks of ESPN about how the salary cap staying mostly flat between 2017-18 and 2018-19 is going to impact FA contracts this July:
Right now, there are just seven teams expected to have significant cap space next summer. Last year, 10 teams had significant space. In 2016, more than 25 teams had at least $10 million in room. Some of the teams projected for room this summer, such as the Chicago Bulls, might sit out of the free-agent market and instead look for trades. The Bulls already demonstrated their intentions by taking on Omer Asik and the $19 million remaining on contract in return for getting a first-round pick from the New Orleans Pelicans.
Other teams with coming cap space who aren’t ready to contend immediately — like the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns — may be more judicious with their money instead of making big offers to free agents like nearly every team was doing just two years ago. Instead, they may look for trade opportunities and it could depress the free-agent market further.
Reading the above, it’s pretty straight forward. The Lakers are part of a growing group of teams who are looking to off-load money during a time when not a lot of teams have space to take on money and the prices to absorb contracts are going to be steep. None of this adds up to them being in a position to make a good deal on their own terms; the market is flooded with sellers so buyers can set the terms of engagement.
Again, this doesn’t mean it can’t happen. The Lakers may be able to entice a team to offer up what it wants or lower their asking prices to a level which is palatable. But, if this really becomes a choice between making a deal which doesn’t meet the team’s wants or making no deal at all before Thursday’s deadline, the Lakers should choose the latter. Fact is, they still have time to sort out their future and they shouldn’t feel compelled to make a move now.