LeBron James has been here before.
You only have to go back to 2017-18 to find a time when he was playing at a high level but surrounded by a roster that did not work. This Cleveland Cavaliers team went 3-10 in the month after a Christmas Day loss to the Golden State Warriors, laying bare the issues with a roster that was heavy on big names – future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade , former MVP Derrick Rose, all-NBA point guard Isaiah Thomas — and light on cohesion.
When trade deadline day arrived, Cleveland completely revamped their roster, dropping Wade, Rose, Thomas, Channing Frye, Jae Crowder and Iman Shumpert in three separate deals. With the new players around him, James would carry Cleveland to their fourth straight NBA Finals appearance.
Los Angeles Lakers fans shouldn’t expect history to repeat itself in 2022 — at least not when it comes to February. With James still playing at a high level, posting his highest scoring average since 2009-10, the Lakers lack the ability to make a series of sweeping roster-changing trades. More likely than not, the Lakers roster will be very similar on Feb. 11 to what it is now.
Here are the three reasons the Lakers will likely be stuck at the trade deadline.
The Lakers knew the risks when they acquired Westbrook and the $91.3 million remaining on his contract. If adding Westbrook as a third star didn’t work out, there would be no mulligan available for the Lakers.
The 2021 offseason marked the third straight in which Westbrook has been traded. In 2019, he was sent from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Houston Rockets for what was called a “toxic” Chris Paul contract (how wrong we all were). In 2020, the Rockets sent him to the Washington Wizards for the equally hard-to-move contract of John Wall, who hasn’t played this season as Houston tries to move him again.
However, in the current NBA landscape, those kinds of irremovable contracts — the only ones another Westbrook deal would likely happen for — don’t exist.
Excluding Westbrook and Wall from the equation, the 10 highest paid players in the NBA are Stephen Curry ($45.8M), James Harden ($44.3M), LeBron James ($41.2M), Kevin Durant ($40.9M), Paul George ($39.3M), Kawhi Leonard ($39.3M), Giannis Antetokounmpo ($39.3M), Damian Lillard ($39.3M), Klay Thompson ($38.0 million) and Jimmy Butler ($36.0 million). Most of the healthy players on this list are playing at an All-NBA level. None of their teams are looking to face them, let alone a 33-year-old guard who is having his worst season since 2009-10.
Moving further down the salary list, Andrew Wiggins once had a contract considered a burden, but the 2014 No. 1 pick is now an All-Star starter. Kevin Love has become Cleveland’s sixth nominee of the year, and the remaining $60 million on his contract is no longer considered dead money.
Looking around the league, there are also no trades that would split Westbrook’s contract into multiple players, like what the Wizards did last offseason – unless, of course, a team like the New York Knicks believes Westbrook can inject life into his lifeless roster.
The 35-point performance in a loss to Charlotte shows Westbrook can still play at an elite level, but only when he doesn’t have to delay. If you want further proof, watch the 2016-17 season, when Westbrook won the MVP award in the Thunder’s first season without Kevin Durant.
Even a hypothetical Westbrook-Wall trade wouldn’t make sense from the perspective of the Rockets, who would find themselves in the same situation with Westbrook as they are now with Wall. The Lakers would need to entertain by tying up multiple draft picks or a player like Talen Horton-Tucker to seal this deal, and it’s unclear whether trading the two former All-Star point guards would change the Lakers’ fortunes at all. .
However, any contract is negotiable. Just ask Kemba Walker, John Wall and Westbrook himself. A team like Oklahoma City would certainly jump to the lead if the Lakers were willing to cut the bait with Westbrook as long as an unprotected first in 2027 and the right to trade firsts in 2028 were attached.
There could always be that desperate team that has buyer’s remorse over the money they spent in the offseason. Maybe a team like the Knicks comes along and sees Westbrook as the player they miss. We’ve seen it in Houston, Washington, and more recently in Los Angeles.
However, the Lakers’ goal is to improve the roster, not just get rid of Westbrook.
The salary construction of the roster
Take a look at the Lakers cap ledger and two things will stand out.
First, the Lakers have $120 million tied up on three players: Westbrook, James and Anthony Davis.
Second, the only players on the roster earning more than the minimum are three-stars Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn, who has yet to play this season. That leaves the Lakers incredibly limited in terms of the types of trades they can make.
Los Angeles could put Horton-Tucker and Nunn together in a deal, but the maximum he can collect in salary in that case is $18.1 million (125% of the combined value of Horton-Tucker and Nunn’s contracts). That would barely be enough to trade for someone like Indiana Pacers big man Myles Turner ($18 million) and just short of the corresponding salary needed to get Jerami Grant ($20 million) from the Detroit Pistons. In the latter case, the Lakers would have to add one of their players to minimum wage for the deal to work, but even if the Lakers did tie up an unprotected first-round pick in 2027, they’d likely be outbid by another team.
Another option would be to move DeAndre Jordan or Kent Bazemore in a deal similar to the one the Lakers made when they sent Rajon Rondo to Cleveland earlier this season, opening up a roster spot and creating significant cost savings. luxury tax. None of the players are in rotation at the moment, and the extra roster spot could be used if a useful player becomes available after post-deadline buyouts.
The Lakers have trade exceptions of $2.8 million and $1.7 million to potentially add a low-wage player and fill an open roster spot, but those exceptions cannot be combined.
The Lakers’ inconsistent play on the court prompted questions about Frank Vogel’s job security, but it also overshadowed the fact that Davis missed nearly a month. At the time of his injury, the Lakers were 16-13 and ranked 10th in defensive efficiency. In Davis’ missed streak, the Lakers were 26th.
Davis is back now, and it’s possible that his return, along with Nunn’s eventual Lakers debut, represent the only big “moves” the Lakers make at the deadline.
A lack of pre-project
The trade to acquire Davis in 2019 achieved the only goal the Lakers had set for themselves: winning an NBA championship. Now, nearly two years later, the Lakers are feeling the long-term negative effects of that trade.
The original deal called for the Lakers to send three first-round picks to the New Orleans Pelicans, one in 2020, one in 2022, and one in 2024 or 2025. Because the Stepien Rule prevents teams from trading future picks first-round fullback-consecutive years the Lakers can’t trade their 2023 pick (one the Pelicans also have trade rights to anyway). Also, because the Pelicans have the right to choose whether they get the Lakers pick in 2024 or 2025, LA is barred from trading their 2026 pick.
What the Lakers have to offer is either a 2027 or 2028 first-round pick, but not both. Teams aren’t allowed to trade picks more than seven years into the future, so the Lakers could add protections to either pick, but can’t let it continue through 2029. .
For example, the Lakers could trade a future first-round pick, but put top-three protection on it in 2027 and 2028. The acquiring team would run the risk of receiving two second-round picks in 2028 if the pick does not pass in either season.
The Lakers could also add language specifying that the acquiring team would receive its first round two years after the conditions for New Orleans are met. For example, if the Pelicans choose to keep 2024 first and not carry over to 2025, then the acquiring team will receive a 2026 first.
The Lakers are clearly a winning team now, but are they willing to trade a first-round pick for 2027 or 2028 when James will likely be retired and Davis could be on a different team?
One thing to keep in mind is that since James entered the league in 2003, the teams he played on (Cleveland, Miami and the Lakers) have traded 15 first-round picks.
Although the Lakers are limited in what they can send when it comes to the first round, they have seven future second-round picks to work with at this trade deadline: 2023 (their own and Chicago), 2024 (least favorable of Washington and Memphis), 2025 (theirs), 2027 (theirs) and 2028 (theirs and Washington).
In anticipation of the off-season
If the Lakers roster doesn’t change much in February, it’s almost certain to change this summer. Only seven current Lakers — James, Davis, Westbrook, Horton-Tucker, Nunn, Stanley Johnson and Austin Reaves — are under contract for 2022-23.
The bad news is that those players are expected to make a combined $149 million, putting the Lakers above the luxury tax line before they even fill the final eight spots on the roster.
The Lakers will have the $6.2 million taxpayer mid-tier exception. Other than that, they will be looking to add veteran minimum players for the second straight offseason.
Los Angeles can’t afford to swing and miss with what little resources it has. The Lakers will need to build more like this season’s Miami Heat, which signed Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, Omer Yurtseven and Dewayne Dedmon as veteran minimums last offseason. The four Heat players aren’t household names like Trevor Ariza, Dwight Howard and Wayne Ellington, but they round out the rest of the Heat roster perfectly.
The signings of Austin Reaves, Malik Monk and Stanley Johnson prove the Lakers need to focus not on what one player has done in the past, but on how each player can help now.