The Lakers are certainly willing to make some trades at the deadline but don’t look for Los Angeles to do anything to cost itself cap space this summer.
When the Lakers successfully landed LeBron James this summer it instantly catapulted Los Angeles from playoff pretenders to contenders, however, that’s still something of a hypothetical. That contender status isn’t predicated on the current roster — it’s based on LeBron, the young assets they have and the ability of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka pull off some meaningful moves ahead of the trade deadline.
The Lakers front office deserves a lot of credit for making sure any free agent they signed last summer didn’t cost them flexibility into the future. The organization was understandably criticized over the issue of how guys like Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson would fit playing next to James and the team’s young core, but both guys signed one-year deals. There’s zero guarantee that anyone Los Angeles landed last summer post-LeBron is going to be a part of this team when the 2019-20 season kicks off.
Every move the Lakers have made after acquiring LeBron has been aimed at amassing as much cap space as possible for the summer of 2019. Magic dreams of pairing another superstar like Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler with James to create a team capable of challenging the Warriors’ Western Conference supremacy. Both Leonard and Butler are playing well with their current teams, but it’s very possible each guy will strongly explore the possibility of moving to a new team in free agency this summer.
The team’s free agency goals really limit what sort of trades they might be willing to make to help this year’s team solidify its playoff positioning. Having LeBron makes the Lakers a good bet to grind their way into the playoffs down the stretch, but the way this team is currently constructed gives it very little chance to make a run to the Western Conference Finals. The current group of players surrounding James looks very much like a unit who will make a first-round exit.
Settling for that kind of result in one of LeBron’s remaining years isn’t going to be a comfortable stance for anyone in the Lakers front office. There will be a real temptation to find ways to give James more of a chance to make a playoff run this season. Doing so will require walking a tightrope between making present improvement and making sure no future flexibility is sacrificed.
The most obvious way the Lakers could improve their roster would be to flip expiring contracts for a player with a multi-year deal. Dealing someone like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for a fringe All-Star stuck on a bad team would help Los Angeles be a more dangerous playoff team this season. That’s not the sort of move the organization will make though. Shedding Caldwell-Pope’s $12 million salary is a vital part of the Lakers’ plans to sign at least one max player this summer.
That leaves the Lakers with two realistic options to improve their team down the stretch. The first avenue would be to sit tight and play the buyout market. Loads of veterans will be interested in playing alongside LeBron for the minimum. Acquiring that kind of veteran would give Los Angeles a boost this season without incurring any salary obligation past the current season.
No player on the buyout market is going to drastically change this team’s fortunes. At best, someone might sign in LA who can help the Lakers advance to the second round. If the front office really wants to give LeBron a chance to win another ring, they’re going to have to do something more aggressive.
Specifically, the Lakers would need to move on from some of their young, homegrown talent. Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart would all garner a lot of interest around the NBA if they were put on the trade block. Each player is a key member of Walton’s current rotation, so the idea would be to use them to acquire a veteran who is better equipped to help the Lakers win immediately.
The idea here is that the Lakers would combine the salaries of a couple of young players to make any trade for a veteran, at worst, salary neutral. It’s even possible Los Angeles could use their young talent to free up even more cap space next summer. That might be required to bring in two max free agents to help LeBron.
Admittedly, this isn’t an easy type of trade to pull off. As such, we feel compelled to give you one example of the type of deal that might work. What if the Lakers offered the Hornets Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram in exchange for Kemba Walker? That deal could save Los Angeles over $1,000,000 in current salary and net them an All-Star point guard to help LeBron. There aren’t any indications this particular deal is under consideration, but it gives you an idea of the type of transaction the Lakers should be looking for.
In the end, expect the Lakers to exercise a lot of patience as the trade deadline approaches. They want to make the playoffs this season, but they want to win a championship next year. That will require Magic to keep the powder largely dry until the summer free agent bonanza begins.