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Lakers, Rob Pelinka, Talen Horton-Tucker

Why Lakers might have to trade Talen Horton-Tucker

Fans of the Los Angeles Lakers might not want to hear this, but general manager Rob Pelinka should explore trading Talen Horton-Tucker.

THT got his first start of the 2020-21 season (and first career non-bubble start) on Wednesday against the Utah Jazz, re-triggering speculation that the Lakers were using the high-profile matchup to showcase the talented 20-year old ahead of the March 25 trade deadline.

Let’s put the conspiracies aside, for now. In all fairness, the fatigued Lakers did need to shake things up amid a losing streak, and the team has often been plagued by slow starts. Head coach Frank Vogel said he started Horton-Tucker “to give us a little more diverse offensive attack,” and add another ball-handler next to LeBron James in the absence of Dennis Schröder. “A fresh look … after losing three in a row,” Vogel explained.

Whatever the agenda, the plan didn’t quite work. Horton-Tucker did help L.A. gain a first-quarter lead, but the Lakers were outscored by 25 points over the next two quarters and lost again without Anthony Davis, 114-89. Horton-Tucker led the Lakers in minutes (30) and tied his career-high in field goal attempts (12). He made three of those shots (two triples) and finished with eight points, five assists, five rebounds, and three turnovers for a -16.

The Lakers need the All-Star break more than roster upgrades. Following a hot opening month, the defending champions are desperate for a recharge, and they simply aren’t built to win without Davis and Schröder. With the playoffs months away, their current “rough patch” is understandable.

Pelinka surely knows this, but that won’t stop him from poking around the trade and buyout market, and rightfully so. The Lakers have two open roster spots after waiving Quinn Cook, most veterans are down to join the Lakers, and the buyout market is relatively rich.

Beyond rest, L.A. could use more depth, and more effective shooting and rim-protection. On that note, attainable vets like Hassan Whiteside, Trevor Ariza, George Hill, Blake Griffin, Ed Davis, Reggie Bullock, J.J. Redick, Alec Burks, Wayne Ellington, among others, could intrigue the Lakers.

Most conversations involving L.A.’s participation in trade talks are quickly muted by salary constraints and roster construction. The Lakers have five players earning significant enough money to trade for a difference-maker. Two of those players are James and Davis, two are valuable rotation pieces (Schröder and Montrezl Harrell), and one is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ($12 million). Everyone else on the team is earning $3.6 million or less in 2020-21.

Kyle Kuzma, whose extension kicks in next season, has become too essential to the fabric of the Lakers to trade for a plug-and-play veteran, like P.J. Tucker. Ditto for Alex Caruso.

The rest of the roster is comprised of guys on minimum deals that carry limited trade value — Marc Gasol, Wes Matthews, Markieff Morris, Jared Dudley — or unproven reserves like Kostas Antetokounmpo, Alfonzo McKinnie, and Devontae Cacok. (Morris and Dudley can veto trades due to a Bird restriction, per ESPN).

Then, there are the hyphen-boys: Caldwell-Pope and Horton-Tucker — both Klutch clients. KCP is 28, with two years left on his deal after this one, and mired in a shooting slump. He can be a solid contributor, but it’s hard to imagine another team enticed by his services or his contract. L.A. shouldn’t hold back from including him in a package that could net a better player, but his individual value is capped.

So, that leaves THT.

Horton-Tucker spent most of his rookie year in the G-League, then grabbed the attention of Vogel in the bubble and the rest of the basketball world in the preseason. Former Laker greats have dubbed him a future star. Yet, while the upside is noticeable, it’s far from guaranteed.

In 29 games this season, the sophomore is averaging 14.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per 36 minutes on .438/.296/.813 shooting splits.

He’s earning just $1.5 million, though is due for a hefty raise this summer, and previous reports indicated that the 2019 no. 46 overall pick has drawn interest from multiple possible suitors. The Lakers love him, but they could get priced out of signing him long-term if other teams swoop in with a “poison pill” contract, as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst noted.

THT has a unique game and physique, at 6-foot-8, nearly 240 pounds, with a 7’1 wingspan. He can create his own shot and exudes natural confidence taking guys off-the-dribble and attacking the paint. His shooting, passing, and defense have ways to go, but he shows glimpses of improvement and promising instincts in each of those areas nearly every time out.

In other words: he’s a tradeable, coveted asset, and the Lakers — who can’t deal a first-round pick earlier than 2027 — don’t have many.

L.A. has one of the oldest rosters in basketball and losing a promising 20-year old would sting. Pelinka is yet to make a midseason trade since he’s been the solo showrunner, but if he’s truly worried about their repeat chances, THT may have to be the star of the deal.

Because of his salary, Horton-Tucker alone couldn’t net a worthy return player (the Lakers are about $1.74 million below the hard cap), but he could be packaged with a group of low-salary guys (Dudley, McKinnie, Matthews), or KCP — as long as high-quality perimeter help or rim protection was coming back to L.A.

For instance, the Lakers could offer him for Hill, if the sharpshooting point guard is not bought out by OKC (historically, Sam Presti prefers trades over buyouts).

Or, if the Lakers are set on Tucker ($7.96 million) but don’t want to part ways with Kuzma, they could offer THT for the hard-nosed 3-and-specialist, which might pique Houston’s interest.

Mo Bamba has been rumored as a target, too. The center has yet to live up to his draft position (no. 6 in 2018) in three seasons with the Orlando Magic, but he’s a 22-year old seven-footer with a 7’10(!) wingspan who has averaged 14.2 points, 11.9 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks per 36 minutes for his career. Not bad.

The Lakers could, similarly, offer a package centered around Horton-Tucker. In this case, at least, they are acquiring youth for youth.

Or, if the Lakers feel particularly desperate for front-court insurance and paint defense, the Sacramento Kings would likely accept this deal for Hassan Whiteside (20.4 points, 14.2 rebounds, 3.2 blocks per-36), though it may make Laker Nation squirm. (Of course, low-level draft pick compensation could be included in any of these fake trades.)

Ultimately, the Lakers’ best bet is to ride out the current storm until Davis recovers and use one of the extra roster spots on a buyout candidate in the meantime. Hopefully, AD will return in time to re-assess the roster ahead of the deadline, when the Lakers should be less fatigued following their nine-day All-Star break.

If by then, Pelinka still feels like he needs to add reinforcements via trade, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which he nabs an impact player without including Horton-Tucker in a deal.

Just something to keep in mind.