The Lakers are betting on the end of the LeBron James era hoping for a bump they can’t afford
The Los Angeles Lakers made a rare choice on Thursday when they chose to let the trade deadline pass without making any kind of move. As disappointing as that might be for fans (and the hourglass – tweet LeBron James), it was a sensible approach on paper.
The Lakers entered the date with a 27-25 record. They ranked 20th in offense and 14th in defense, hardly the margin of a true contender. Last year’s Lakers didn’t look like one in February either, but the solutions were pretty simple. Get James and Anthony Davis back on the court and get Russell Westbrook off. A healthy Laker team with a supporting cast better suited to favorable brackets rode all the way to the Western Conference Finals.
The solutions were not so clear this time.
While James and Davis have been mostly healthy, the Lakers didn’t have a big expiring contract to deal with or remove a negative from the rotation. They are just a team that has played mediocre basketball and would need meaningful changes to fix that. In a trade market that saw little movement among even top-tier players, those changes didn’t seem forthcoming. So the Lakers did not win the case. They decided to wait.
But what are they waiting for? That’s a bit more of a pipe dream. Bleacher Report Chris Haynes reported by the deadline that the Lakers plan to wait until the summer to make the move. At that point, the Stepien Rule restrictions that limited them to offering only one first-round pick in a trade during the season will lighten. The Lakers will have three first-round picks and three first-round swaps to trade with. At that point, Haynes reports, the Lakers will try to trade for a superstar. Our very own Bill Reiter reported one possible name: Donovan Mitchell.
This is, effectively, the strategy that the Lakers have used for their entire history. Although there are gaps from time to time like the five years between Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal or the three years between Kobe Bryant and James, the Lakers have moved quite a bit from superstar to superstar to superstar. star for the last six decades. This is where the Lakers independence comes from. If all the Lakers ever knew was building superstars, why would they think it would be especially hard to get superstars?
The truth here is far more complex. In the modern NBA, three first-round picks aren’t that many. When the offseason arrives, the Nets will have eight first-round picks to trade. The Knicks will have nine. The Spurs, Jazz and Thunder will all be in double digits. In a true bidding war, the Lakers have no chance against any of these teams.
Which raises the question why exactly the Lakers think they have a reasonable chance at a player like Mitchell. He has been linked to New York for years. Even if he leaves a Cavaliers team that has lit the NBA on fire for the past month, wouldn’t his hometown Knicks or Nets, with far more to trade, make more sense?
The obvious answer here is yes, but when your entire franchise history suggests you should go for it anyway, it’s not hard to see why the Lakers would want to try that. to do In fact, the NBA has changed a lot since the Lakers gathered most of the stars that left. Even as recently as 2018, it was very common for players to change teams through free agency. The Lakers could clear a captain’s spot and bet on the market and their history to do the rest. This is how they got James.
But in the “extend now, get traded later” era of NBA history that we’re currently in, player choice tends to be less and less in these matters than it once was. If Damian Lillard, a 33-year-old with a hefty long-term contract, couldn’t get to the Miami Heat as he had hoped, what hope would a younger star have to force his way to the Lakers when the team have really been. put out?
A slightly more plausible path for the Lakers is to pursue a star with a few warts. The Clippers just acquired James Harden for what now looks like a pittance because he had no other market. The Mavericks got Kyrie Irving on a similar discount, although his market was a little wider. Harden’s defensive and playoff concerns limited his number of suitors. As did Irving’s off-court issues.
Will such players be available next season? Maybe. Trae Young stands out in this regard. He is an even more limited defender than Harden, and only makes sense in a situation where he can play a ball-controlled style. He, like James and Davis, is represented by Klutch Sports. The Lakers have been linked to him in the past. If the Lakers are interested in building around two big men, Minnesota’s luxury tax issues are finally going to make the Timberwolves consider the future of Karl-Anthony Towns. Of course, if they go on a long playoff run, they will likely pay what it takes to keep the team together.
Even still, the Lakers have very little control over the star trade market. The stars must align from them. If the New York teams and some of the other asset holders decide they are doing whatever it takes to add All-Stars this summer? The Lakers are out of luck. They don’t have the resources to compete. Even if the right player becomes available, all it takes is one more interested party to put the Lakers out of the running. The Spurs needing a guard makes a lot of sense for Young. Minnesota would probably prefer a winning asset for Towns anyway.
This is the danger of the core-star approach that the Lakers appear to be taking. Just because they’ve been able to land these types of players in the past doesn’t mean they’re automatically qualified to do so again. Of course, it’s also worth asking if they should even want to.
The Lakers won their 2020 championship with two stars and a great supporting cast. With three first-round picks this summer, they could replenish the team around James and Davis and perhaps try to recreate that formula. Would that be possible when James enters his 40s? It is too early to tell and it would depend entirely on the players who are and are not available. There is no easy way out here, no one-size-fits-all solution. Getting the Lakers back into the championship picture will require major changes and a well-planned overall schedule.
That’s what makes the “Let’s go and wait for a star” approach so worrying. It is not an attempt to address the real flaws that are plaguing this team right now. It is an attempt to solve a contemporary problem with an ancient solution. The Lakers can’t just rely on getting stars by being the Lakers anymore.