The Los Angeles Lakers took the NBA world by surprise at this year’s trade deadline when they dealt Michael Beasley and promising young center Ivica Zubac to the crosstown rival Clippers in exchange for Mike Muscala.
Zubac, a 21-year-old taken with the 32nd pick of the 2016 NBA Draft, was a relative unknown to begin the season. But by mid-December, he was making his first start in the NBA, scoring 16 points and adding 11 rebounds and two blocks in a win over the New Orleans Pelicans.
After returning to a bench role in January, Zubac rattled off a a five-game stretch in which he averaged 19.0 points and 9.4 rebounds, immediately forcing his way back into the starting lineup.
Less than two weeks later, he was on his way to the Clippers.
The move was confusing for a number of reasons, not the least of which pertains to the Lakers’ roster makeup that includes JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler as two aging centers.
Muscala has been a serviceable NBA player who can provide outside shooting, but he hardly seems like a fair return for a 21-year-old who was just coming into his own in the league and recording a 19.1 PER.
So, what gives?
On Thursday’s edition of the FnA podcast on iHeartRADIO, Los Angeles Times reporter Brad Turner cited three potential reasons for the Lakers moving on from Zubac.
Turner revealed that the Lakers were insistent on getting rid of Michael Beasley, who had become somewhat of a cancer in the locker room. He also stated that McGee had become upset with his playing time:
Apparently JaVale McGee being unhappy with his playing time was a factor in making the Zubac trade Via Brad Turner
— Ralph Mason (@Ralph_MasonJr) February 14, 2019
The final reason Turner listed as evidence for the trade was a feeling from the front office that they would be unable to keep Zubac — who is a restricted free agent this summer — in the offseason.
Much has been made of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka’s desire to add another max-level player to pair with LeBron James next season, and Zubac is likely to receive offers that are far more lucrative than his $1.9 million qualifying offer.
The Beasley component cannot be overlooked either. The Lakers have already experienced a great deal of internal strife following the Anthony Davis saga.
LeBron has been rather coy about his legacy and a lack of something to prove at this stage of his career, while Shams Charania of The Athletic also reported that head coach Luke Walton clashed with veterans on the team after a game, with Beasley among them.
Beasley’s departure was unequivocally a locker room move. But what about the other reasons that Turner stated?
All in on next summer
McGee has been a consummate pro in recent years, playing key roles for the Warriors in their last two championship seasons. He is also posting a 20.8 PER this season while averaging 11.1 points per game, his highest clip since the 2011-2012 season.
But McGee is also 31 years old and is hardly a shot creator. He is also owner of the worst defensive rating of his career (107.4), according to NBA.com/stats. Is he really that much more impactful than Zubac in helping his team try to secure a playoff spot?
In terms of the future outlook in Los Angeles, the Lakers were always going to be cautious with their spending.
They need that second max player to make a run at the elite teams in the Western Conference, and trying to retain Zubac may have inhibited their ability to do so. Thus, getting Muscala on an expiring deal opens up that much more cap space.
Still, Turner reported that Zubac was intent on being a part of the Lakers’ plans. Given the promise that he had shown in December, it may have been more wise to begin conversations about his potential willingness to take a qualifying offer or reach an extension.
With or without Zubac, it is clear that a failure to sign another max free agent this offseason will be deemed as a massive failure overall in Los Angeles, especially if Anthony Davis goes elsewhere.