If you thought the Lakers would approach the halfway mark of the season hovering around .500, you’re a goddamn liar.
Even those of us who were skeptical this iteration of the purple and gold would live up to the insane expectations placed upon it before the season tipped in October—after the roster was completely revamped around superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, headlined by the acquisition of Russell Westbrook—never imagined Los Angeles would play such underwhelming basketball entering January.
Injuries, issues with health and safety protocols, a distinct lack of continuity, and the inconsistency of everyone not named LeBron have all contributed in a major way to the Lakers limping into the new year, sitting in 7th place in the West with a 20-19 record after Tuesday’s win over the lowly Kings. And considering Los Angeles operates with a win-now mentality, as long as No. 6, who turned 37 on Dec. 30, suits up, it’s logical to wonder what moves the Lakers can make to spark an in-season renaissance.
Let’s just say you probably have better odds of finding a slice of pizza that isn’t cardboard, Prego, and Velveeta in LA than the Lakers do of making a big move to jolt themselves out of mediocrity.
“I would say there is a very, very small chance they can pull off something significant,” ESPN NBA front-office insider Bobby Marks tells Complex Sports. “It’s top-heavy when you have LeBron, AD, and Westbrook with those salaries, and then there’s a huge drop.”
Handcuffed by the whopping money LA’s big three make (a combined $120 million), the meager trade assets that encompass everyone else on the roster, a tiny $1.7 million trade exception carved out from their recent Rajon Rondo trade, and a limited cachet of deal-able future first-round picks, general manager and vice president of basketball operations Rob Pelinka might have to work a miracle if he wants to jumpstart Los Angeles via a trade.
Think about it: What position of strength are the Lakers dealing from unless they dangle Davis (not happening), since nobody will touch Westbrook (thanks to his gargantuan contract)? Meanwhile, everyone else not named Malik Monk currently rocking purple and gold is either old and making no money—meaning it would be impossible to match salaries in a trade for an impact player—or has been ineffective and isn’t particularly attractive.
Ask Marks will tell you, LA’s only notable trade assets are Talen Horton-Tucker (young and inconsistent), Kendrick Nunn (hasn’t played yet this season), and its next trade-able future first-round selection (2027) which means a blockbuster trade is essentially impossible. Setting their sights lower, would bundling those three assets be enough to nab somebody like Celtics guard Marcus Smart or Blazers guard Norman Powell? What about Jerami Grant, currently out recovering from a thumb injury? He’s been rumored to be a target of the Lakers. But LA won’t be the only team interested in dealing for the versatile Detroit forward averaging 20.1 PPG this season.
“I think there will be better offers, unless the Pistons see value in a 2027 first,” says Marks.
So what can the Lakers do? Well, for starters, they can keep shuffling the roster, like LA did by recently shipping out Rondo to create potential roster spots and add an element of flexibility as 10-day contracts (the non-hardship kind) officially are at the disposal of every team as of Wednesday. Chances are the Lakers re-up Stanley Johnson after a recent successful stint that saw him step up while LA dealt with health and safety protocols issues. Marks says we’re way more likely to see LA pull off minor deals featuring any number of the nine players who started the season on the roster that are making the minimum.
While we’re still weeks away from the buyout market heating up, the Lakers could easily be players when the time arrives. However, there are two factors Marks says could kill the buzz LA fans might enjoy dreaming about a marquee late-season addition. For starters, will Lakers owner Jeanie Buss be cool with waiving a player (for example, the ineffective DeAndre Jordan) on a guaranteed contract and luxury tax ramifications, since the Lakers are way over the cap? While the Lakers entered the 2021-22 season as one of the most expensive teams in the NBA (LA owns the fifth-highest active cap number in the league), Buss isn’t loaded like Clippers owner Steve Ballmer. Her pockets aren’t endless, and there could be limits to how much money she’s willing to forfeit in the chase for a championship. And who’s even going to be available? Buyout candidates often come from teams wallowing at the bottom of the standings. The idea that a potential buyout from the Pistons, Rockets, Magic, or Thunder would turn into a major difference-maker for LA is about as ridiculous as the frauds who flock to Lakers games just so they can stunt on IG. Which, by the way, is approximately half the arena on any given evening.
Lakers fans, at least the real ones, will just have to settle for the return of Davis, out since December with an MCL sprain that’s expected to keep him sidelined for several more weeks, as LA’s big in-season “acquisition.” And while Marks says the Lakers clearly aren’t in the class of the Warriors, Suns, and even Jazz so far this regular-season, he did offer up a silver lining for purple and gold supporters.
The NBA is forever a star-driven league, and Los Angeles undoubtedly has three of the biggest, who make up the game’s most intriguing troika. Should LA run out a healthy LeBron, AD, and a composed Westbrook (big if, I know) when the playoffs arrive, the Lakers would likely feature short odds to get out of the West.
“I probably like this roster a little bit better than I did a year ago, just because you have three top 30 players that can potentially win you a game or lose you a game,” says Marks. “And I’d probably rather take my chance with them than three role players.”
But wagering that the Lakers can and will pull off a big deal before the trade deadline? Only a sucker would make that bet.