First, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that Houston is planning on waiving well-traveled veteran center DeMarcus Cousins.
Next, before the Lakers’ two-point loss to the Miami Heat at Staples Center, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that L.A. has shown interest in acquiring Houston’s hard-nosed, 3-and-D man P.J. Tucker.
“The Lakers have been active,” Woj said on the pre-game broadcast. “I know they’ve made calls about some wing players to see if there is some shooting available out there. Another player they’re interested in: P.J. Tucker … There’s a lot of interest among contenders in Tucker, who’s in the last year of his deal. The Miami Heat … Milwaukee, Brooklyn, several others.”
Notably, Woj added that “Houston wants back not picks, but a player that they can plug back into their lineup.”
Houston’s rationale is understandable: at 11-17, they currently sit 13th in the Western Conference standings amid a franchise overhaul under a first-year head coach and GM. Now’s the time to rebuild. They’ve already compiled plenty of picks from the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for James Harden, and Victor Oladipo could bring more back. Why not seek a solid young player?
The Rockets declined to offer Tucker an extension in the off-season, which the 35-year old was reportedly “irate” about. As a result, he’s playing on the final year of his deal, at $7.9 million.
The 11-year forward is averaging 4.7 points and 4.6 rebounds in 24 games this season. But, he’s better than those numbers suggest, and he remains an elite multi-positional defender.
The motivation for the Lakers to pursue a deal is iffier. In a vacuum, he would be a logical addition. L.A. would be comfortable with Tucker on the floor in a playoff crunch-time game against, say, the Los Angeles Clippers, Utah Jazz, Nets, or Milwaukee Bucks. He would instantly command respect in the locker room, and his rugged style of play and devotion to the little things seamlessly aligns with the Lakers’ self-described identity.
And, of course, if they believe in Tucker’s value, acquiring him prevents another contender from scooping him up.
Tucker could try to swing a trade to a team that’s ready to commit to him beyond this season, and the Lakers may not be that team. However — and here’s the hard pill to swallow for Lakers fans who may be initially enticed by the idea of adding Tucker — if the interest is indeed mutual and the Lakers are bidding against contenders with limited salary flexibility, Kyle Kuzma would likely be the unlucky candidate to head to Houston, assuming Kentavious Caldwell-Pope doesn’t interest the Rockets.
To acquire Tucker and match the salaries match, the Lakers would probably need to package Kuzma ($3.5 million this season) with Wes Matthews ($3.6 million), and a minimum-salary player (Alonzo McKinnie, Jared Dudley, Quinn Cook) to land Tucker. A shake-up of that magnitude seems risky and counter-productive.
The ideal route for the Lakers would be to nab Tucker for a combination of conditional draft picks, Matthews, and non-rotation players. As long as the Rockets want a quality player back, though, the defending champs would be better off keeping Kuzma around. After all, the 25-year old forward — who led L.A. in scoring on Saturday — is playing as comfortably and productively as ever on both ends, fresh off a three-year, $40 million extension.
According to The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, there is mutual interest between the Lakers and Cousins. As O’Connor notes, the market for Cousins won’t be as competitive as the one for Tucker.
If the Lakers — who have been poking around on the buyout market — were to sign Cousins before Feb. 24, they would need to waive locker-room favorite, Quinn Cook. Cook’s salary becomes guaranteed the following day, meaning the Lakers would have to use their only extra roster spot to sign Cousins at the veteran’s minimum.
Technically, Boogie was part of the Lakers’ 2019-20 championship team before the bubble, but a torn ACL prevented him from playing a game in the purple-and-gold (though he’s getting a ring). Still, he’s obviously familiar with the locker room, and the Lakers could, in theory, use extra frontcourt depth with Anthony Davis (calf strain) out at least four weeks.
On the other hand, Cousins, 30, has simply not been good in 2020-21. He’s played marginally better since late January following a disastrous start, but he’s nowhere near the player he once was — especially on the defensive end. Overall, the four-time All-Star is averaging 9.6 points and 7.6 rebounds in 20.2 minutes per game with a meager 0.3 VORP.
Furthermore, if the Lakers do add a big, they might as well tap somebody who can help defend the rim (a recent weak link), and Cousins provides little help in that area. His shaky shot selection could break the Lakers’ offensive rhythm and take shots away from Montrezl Harrell, with whom he would likely play alongside. Finally, for an insurance big, he presents an injury risk himself.
The Lakers would have confidence in Cousins, but they simply don’t need him considering his current skill set. Assuming no major setbacks, they’ll have Davis back when it counts.
There’s a bigger issue with adding Tucker or Cousins. While both players add frontcourt depth with Davis sidelined, neither one significantly helps solve the Lakers’ most pressing problem at the moment: three-point shooting.
After a hot start through mid-January, the Lakers have painfully regressed to the mean from beyond-the-arc, and now rank 20th in 3-point accuracy. Their cold shooting has cost them a slew of games in the past few weeks, including in the fourth quarter against Miami.
Tucker is a 35.9 percent shooter from downtown in his career but has made just 32.9 percent of triples this year. Cousins has played like a stretch-five this season, but he’s shooing a subpar 33.8 percent from deep on a career-high 10.8 (!) attempts per game.
Those numbers are fine, and both players can make open shots. In general, both veteran Rockets can still be helpful NBA players, and possibly help the Lakers. But, the price of Kuzma is too high and disruptive for Tucker, while Cousins doesn’t move the needle enough to use a roster spot on.
Instead, GM Rob Pelinka would be better off looking elsewhere on the market for perimeter shooting upgrades — perhaps Trevor Ariza, George Hill, Evan Fournier, Wayne Ellington, J.J. Redick — or extra rim protection.
If not, Pelinka, Vogel, and the Lakers can hope their team rediscovers its shooting touch.