The Los Angeles Lakers are in a pickle. They have undoubtedly underperformed — the preseason favorites to win the West sit ninth in the conference and a season-worst three games below .500 after a 2-4 road trip. LeBron James (injured again), Anthony Davis (thankfully back), and Russell Westbrook (slightly rejuvenated) have only played 16 games together.
The schedule only gets tougher: 20 of their final 31 games come against winning teams, and 18 are on the road.
Furthermore, the Lakers are limited in tradable assets — a consequence of the Westbrook and Davis trades —and two of those assets have declined in value. Talen Horton-Tucker, while only 21, hasn't made the strides the Lakers hoped for when they gave him a three-year, $32 million contract. There is debate league-wide about his ceiling. Their other movable piece, Kendrick Nunn — on a two-year, $10 million deal with a player option for 2022-23 — has yet to debut due to a bone bruise in his knee.
The Lakers can trade either their 2027 or 2028 first-round pick, minimum contracts, second-rounders, and … that's it. Well, unless they want to deal Russell Westbrook for John Wall — which would likely cost them a first, anyway.
Do they shake things up before the Feb. 10 trade deadline, tinker around the edges, or stand pat and trust their ability to get healthy and find a rhythm? Remember: as long as LeBron is wearing purple-and-gold, the Lakers' only goal is to compete for a championship.
Let's examine a few possible needs for the Lakers. (Note: Every name mentioned is somebody whom the Lakers could feasibly target using an iteration of the THT/Nunn/'27 1st package. They'll have to include other clubs to sweeten the pot for a player like, I don't know, Ben Simmons. Also, I'm not including any San Antonio Spurs because of their longstanding policy not to deal with the Lakers.)
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Lakers' trade deadline needs
Stanley Johnson has been a revelation. The former lottery pick turned a hardship exception into a well-deserved two-year deal. He provides dogged defense at multiple positions, and his 3-pointer is coming along. His toughness and effort are contagious.
Still, the Lakers could use another long, versatile wing. 36-year-old Trevor Ariza — who may have started opening night if not for ankle surgery — has been a bust. Kent Bazemore — one of the few two-way players added last summer — has also fallen out of the mix.
Johnson and Austin Reaves are excellent defenders — and Johnson is a tank — but they're 6'6 and 6'5, respectively. LeBron, when he returns, can't be expected to be locked in defensively before the playoffs.
The Lakers should scour the market for an Ariza-type player, only younger and, you know, playable.
Options: Jerami Grant (probably off the table), Marcus Smart, Harrison Barnes, Kenrich Williams, Robert Covington, Justin Holiday
The Lakers have fully pivoted to small ball. Anthony Davis will play the 5, and the Lakers will go centerless when he sits. As it stands, that means LeBron, Johnson, or Carmelo Anthony manning the middle.
There are upsides to this approach: it gives them a consistent identity and spaces the offense. However, the defense and rebounding suffer.
Dwight Howard is only effective in short spurts, and often not at all. DeAndre Jordan is unplayable. Neither player offers versatility, anyway. The Lakers could use a big who allows them to maintain their newfound style without having to downsize too dramatically when AD sits.
Options: Myles Turner (probably impossible), Christian Wood, Larry Nance Jr., Richaun Holmes, Mike Muscala
The Lakers could pursue extra shooting or point guard depth, though, theoretically, Nunn addresses those needs. Based on reports, this could end up being where the Lakers land.
Options: Buddy Hield (it's not too late!), Gary Trent Jr., Eric Gordon, Terrence Ross, Caris LeVert, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Jeremy Lamb, Norman Powell, Lou Williams.
Open roster spot
The Lakers have five prideful veterans on minimum contracts — Jordan, Ariza, Bazemore, Howard, Wayne Ellington — out of the regular rotation. Because Jeanie Buss sweats the luxury tax, the Lakers don't want to waive any of them (which would cost about $7 million). They don't want to attach a draft pick in a trade to send them elsewhere, either.
There is no reason to have all five on the team. The Lakers were able to use cash-based incentives to send Rajon Rondo — also out of the rotation — to the Cleveland Cavaliers. They have about $4.4 million they can deal via trade exceptions. The Lakers should try and move any of those vets — or Avery Bradley — and look to the buyout market.