NBA

With LeBron James injured, the Lakers have some difficult trade deadline decisions to make

LeBron James has many basketball-related superpowers, but perhaps his greatest is his ability to cover up roster-building mistakes. In an increasingly scoring-obsessed league, the Lakers have struggled by most measures of modernity. They rank 22nd in 3-point percent and 25th in 3-point attempt rate, which, in turn, has given them roughly average half-court offensive numbers. That doesn’t matter when you have LeBron. He can lift an offense in transition and take over completely down the stretch of games. He can sustain a top defense even without its best player. He is so singularly gifted and versatile that his mere presence makes steady winning an inevitability. Whatever his team needs, he can provide. Even with Anthony Davis missing almost half of the season thus far, James had the Lakers in sole possession of the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed entering Saturday. 

Well, now James is out indefinitely with a high-ankle sprain, and suddenly, the flaws he covered up become glaring. They’re now down to one functioning NBA ball-handler in Dennis Schroder. Their defense, increasingly reliant on basketball-IQ without the athleticism that helped make last year’s unit so special, just lost its smartest player. LeBron generates the sort of shots that can make bad shooters look good. This was a roster built to be carried by two players not currently healthy enough to carry it, and until James or Davis returns, the Lakers are vulnerable. 

The defending champions have 16 games scheduled over the next month. At a bare minimum, half of them are against championship contenders. In that span, the Lakers will play the Suns, 76ers, Bucks, Clippers, Heat, Nets and Jazz twice. Throw in potentially tough matchups with Boston and Toronto and a two-game set in Dallas following those first 16 games and the Lakers have arguably stumbled into the hardest portion of their schedule without their two best players. 

This brings us back to the weaknesses James, for the time being, can no longer help the Lakers overcome. The trade deadline is days away, and in a sense, that makes the timing of LeBron’s injury something of a blessing. Had it come a week later, the Lakers would have been out of luck. They wouldn’t have had the chance to upgrade the roster through trades that they are now free to consider. 

The Lakers aren’t ideally situated to make a deadline deal, though. They have only one tradable first-round pick and it’s in 2027. They have only $1.5 million in space below the hard cap, and given their empty roster spots, they would practically have to match the salary of any player they acquire dollar-for-dollar. The easy answer is to tie a second-round pick or two to Alfonzo McKinnie and see if there are any worthwhile veterans on minimum-salary deals they can acquire. Wayne Ellington would be a nice get as a shooter, and Kent Bazemore is worth an offer as well if Golden State wants to continue its youth movement. These aren’t needle-movers, though. The Lakers could dangle Talen Horton-Tucker to teams with similarly gifted but better-fitting youngsters (such as Charlotte’s Devonte’ Graham, who is fighting for shots in a crowded backcourt), but his impending restricted free agency limits his value. If the Lakers want to add a true impact piece, they are going to have to dip into their rotation. There’s one obvious candidate. 

Re-signing Montrezl Harrell this offseason is going to be extremely difficult. Because he signed for only a single guaranteed season, the Lakers can only offer him a 20 percent raise. That’s roughly $11.1 million. He took a discount to sign with the Lakers this offseason ostensibly to increase his value ahead of a more favorable 2021 free-agent market. Almost half of the league could have significant cap space this offseason. Someone is going to offer him more than that. 

There’s a credible case to be made that Harrell is redundant in Los Angeles as it is. Davis is going to play more center minutes in the playoffs. Marc Gasol may be limited, but the original, healthy starting five featuring him, James, Davis, Schroder and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope destroyed opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions. There’s no reason to break up that unit, and if the Lakers don’t, they are going to have fewer available minutes to allocate to Harrell. They might even have a ready-made replacement. The Lakers are reportedly interested in signing Andre Drummond off of the buyout market. If they think he’s coming, they can clear minutes for him and use Harrell to fill another need in a single move.

The second to downside to Harrell’s low cap number this season comes in matching his salary. If the Lakers trade him alone, they can only absorb a player making roughly $10.7 million. Oklahoma City’s George Hill and Cleveland’s Cedi Osman, both former teammates of James, fit into that slot, but both would likely require draft capital the Lakers aren’t eager to trade, and more importantly, neither strike the right balance between shooting and ball-handling that they need. 

Throw in some extra salary and the Lakers can get a bit more ambitious. Harrell and McKinnie get them to Norman Powell’s salary, and Toronto does need a center. Powell, like Harrell, has a player option this offseason, but if he declines it, his team will have full Bird Rights and can therefore re-sign him for anything up to the max. Swap out McKinnie for Wesley Matthews and the Lakers are in range for Terrence Ross. He’s under contract for the next two seasons at declining salaries, a bonus for a Lakers team that will have to re-sign Schroder, Horton-Tucker and Alex Caruso this summer. 

Powell is averaging 19.6 points on almost 45 percent 3-point shooting in a breakout season, and Toronto will surely ask for either Horton-Tucker or that unprotected 2027 first-rounder if they are going to deal him. Orlando might as well. Ross has steadily shot above league-average from behind the arc with the Magic despite playing with below-average point guards. Imagine the improvement he could see when James returns. Both shoot well enough to open up the floor for the remaining Lakers even without him. 

The short-term downside to trading Harrell is obvious. He is their fourth-leading scorer and one of the likelier candidates for increased usage without James. Offense is already going to be at a premium, and that complicates even more ambitious Laker deals. Schroder, for instance, is also months away from free agency, and has so far been unable to agree to an extension with the Lakers. His $15.5 million salary could be their ticket to a blockbuster deal, and trading him would come with the added bonus of clearing the $2 million he has in unlikely incentives off of their books as it relates to the hard cap. 

But as tempting as a home-run swing on, say, Victor Oladipo might appear, the downside risk of giving up Schroder with James and Davis already down is enormous. The Lakers would have to get a ball-handler that could reliably contribute as much as Schroder just to stay afloat, and there aren’t many of them out there. Some, like Orlando’s Evan Fournier, might fit better with LeBron, but would struggle in the intervening period without him. 

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope already fits into that bucket, but his long-term money will turn off certain suitors, and like Harrell, James, Davis, Horton-Tucker and Markieff Morris, he is represented by Klutch Sports. Harrell, in his first year with the team, may not have the equity to prevent a deal to an undesirable location, but Caldwell-Pope was perhaps the third-best player on their championship team. He isn’t someone to be traded lightly. 

Any trade the Lakers consider is ultimately going to rely on the returning package. Caldwell-Pope, as a 3-and-D, fits with the most teams. Harrell, an all-offense center, fits with the fewest. Finding him a home wouldn’t be easy. Charlotte was interested in the offseason and may still be now. Sacramento needs a long-term solution, but Richaun Holmes already does many of the same things. Some teams would view Harrell as genuine value. To others, he’s salary filler. If the Lakers are going to make a fair, win-now trade based around him and his cap number, finding a team that genuinely wants him will be critical. 

James helped the Lakers build a cushion without Davis, but not an enormous one. They now sit only four games ahead of the San Antonio Spurs, currently seeded No. 7 in the Western Conference. The Spurs are due a fair bit of regression themselves, but the red-hot Mavericks, presently trailing the Lakers by six games, are not. Assuming James and Davis make it back in time for the stretch run, their current lead probably protects them from the play-in round, but slipping that far is hardly inconceivable. Laker lineups missing James have been outscored by 4.5 points per 100 possessions this season, according to Cleaning the Glass, and that includes units featuring Davis. Without the two of them, their offense ranks in the 17th percentile in terms of efficiency. In the 186 remaining possessions that did not feature Schroder either, they don’t even crack the 1st percentile. The Lakers aren’t going to score many points for the next several weeks.  


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