The Los Angeles Lakers are currently in a strange spot. They own a record of 25-21 and are clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. LeBron James is currently out with a groin injury, but he is due back soon.
Will the Lakers be big-time buyers before the trade deadline in a couple of weeks? Or will they play it safe and merely wait to strike in free agency (or the trade market) over the summer?
Well, here is the thing: you know a LeBron-led team is never going to be a seller, so that’s that. And as far as buying? Again, this is a LeBron-led team we are talking about. Even if it is arguably the weakest team he has had since his first stint in Cleveland, the Lakers are still solid, LeBron is still LeBron and Hollywood is still Hollywood, so Magic Johnson and Co. will almost certainly be making moves to strengthen the team by Feb. 7.
Is it smart, though?
After all, the Lakers are clearly not contenders out West, with the Golden State Warriors demonstrating that they still have a firm grasp on the throne and the Houston Rockets recently giving us all a taste of how good they will be once they get healthy.
Is it possible that Los Angeles can be a top four or five team in the Western Conference when James gets right? Maybe, but let’s be honest: that means nothing, especially for LeBron, who is used to playing for titles year in and year out.
Taking all of those factors into consideration, you might come to the conclusion that it would be relatively pointless for the Lakers to try and make any trades to get better between now and the trading deadline, because, well, what’s the use?
It’s deeper than that, though.
Right now, the Lakers are not the attractive free-agent destination that some felt they would be when James landed there. Paul George spurned them. Kawhi Leonard apparently would prefer to play for the Clippers. Jimmy Butler doesn’t seem to want anything to do with them. Kevin Durant already said stars don’t really want to play with LeBron anymore.
While it’s not necessarily time to push the panic button in Los Angeles, there should be some concern as to just how the Lakers are going to land any star players.
That means they may have to sweeten the pot a little by actually improving their team.
We have seen how mediocre (at best) the Lakers are without LeBron this season. Since injuring his groin on Christmas, Los Angeles has gone just 5-7. Yes, the Lakers did notch that impressive road win over the Oklahoma City Thunder the other night, but they also suffered home losses to the likes of the New York Knicks and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
With James now being 34 years old and showing that he is human after all, there isn’t a whole lot of incentive for other star players to join him as the Lakers are currently constructed.
But if they can add someone notable through a trade by the deadline? Then maybe things change a bit.
Of course, Los Angeles’ ultimate target this summer is Anthony Davis, who the New Orleans Pelicans may look to trade. But, no one knows for sure if Davis is actually going to be on the block, and until then, the Lakers can’t afford to just sit around and wait with James getting older by the second.
Los Angeles may need to end up falling back on the free-agent market rather than trading for Davis this summer, and it would be a heck of a lot easier to attract free agents if the team was better.
It would certainly behoove the Lakers to improve their squad now in preparation for that moment in July. To be fair, there may not be a whole lot of All-Star caliber players available at the deadline, but anyone who can provide some help will suffice.
Kemba Walker could become available, for example. Now, Walker will be a free agent over the summer, but the Lakers could go a long way in convincing him to sign with them if he actually spends some time around the team first.
Magic and Rob Pelinka should absolutely peruse the market to see what is out there, because adding a player of that caliber could pay massive dividends in the long haul.
Even if it isn’t an All-Star like Walker or Beal, any good player will help the cause.
I think the Lakers understand that they are not winning a title this season. Outside of an out-of-the-blue trade for Davis over the next two-and-a-half weeks, there isn’t a move Los Angeles can make to put it above Golden State.
But it’s about the long view.
The Lakers need to be able to show free agents that they can win a title, and right now, their roster isn’t nearly appealing enough to attract a star willing to potentially be scapegoated playing next to LeBron.