Sunday, September 24 2023
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Rob Pelinka has made it clear that he wants to keep the core of the Los Angeles Lakers together this offseason. Doing so will mean hefty expenditures in free agency. Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura will be priorities in free agency assuming the Lakers don’t decide to create cap space for an external target, and as poorly as he finished the season, D’Angelo Russell could easily be back as well. Lonnie Walker IV and Dennis Schroder will be harder to retain, but if there are realistic paths to re-signing them, the Lakers will attempt to do so.

Keeping those free agents is sensible. They are mostly young and coming off of a trip to the Western Conference finals. But the Lakers got swept by the Nuggets once they got there, and with LeBron James only getting older, it’s fair to suggest that the Laker roster, as currently constituted, is not ready to win a championship. They will need to make a meaningful addition or two outside of the players that just lost to Denver, and if their free agency dollars are spent on retention, their only path to significant improvement will be on the trade market.

The Lakers are far more flexible on that front this summer than they have been in years past, and they can thank the moves Pelinka made at the deadline for that. He used the expiring contracts of Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley to acquire two players on non-guaranteed salaries—Malik Beasley and Mo Bamba—that combine to give the Lakers nearly $27 million in matching salaries this offseason. Pelinka gave away their 2027 first-round pick in the Westbrook deal… but he didn’t give it protections that last multiple seasons. That means that regardless of what happens in 2027, the Lakers still have access to their 2029 selection as a trade chip. Couple that with the No. 17 overall pick they still have in this year’s draft and the Lakers suddenly have the means to create a fairly compelling trade package.

Pelinka would surely prefer to use that package to land a star. Two first-round picks and a couple of expiring salaries won’t get them there unless they’re willing to take a sign-and-trade risk on Kyrie Irving. More likely, those picks are pathways to filling specific needs. The Lakers badly needed another reliable two-way wing in the Denver series to soak up some of the minutes devoted to the offensively deficient Jarred Vanderbilt and defensively deficient Walker. Russell no-showed the Denver series, and given his defensive vulnerability and inconsistent playoff track record, the Lakers might want to seek out a more reliable secondary ball-handler to help carry the load alongside James as well. A backup center would be helpful given the time Davis misses and the unsuccessful small-ball lineups Darvin Ham played when he sat in the postseason, though supply tends to outweigh demand on the center market, so this is a void the Lakers will likely try to fill in free agency.

So let’s say the Lakers decide to retain Beasley and Bamba as trade chips. What sort of players could they target with those two first-round picks at their disposal? Here are 20 names to keep an eye on, ranging from realistic to fantastical and sorted into one of five categories:

The top of the market

The Lakers like to go big-game hunting, but as we’ve covered, they lack the chips to do so effectively. Trendy offseason names like Trae Young, Damian Lillard and Karl-Anthony Towns are going to be too expensive for the Lakers if they are even moved at all. But for two picks, there are still at least a few phone calls worth making at the top of the market.

The obvious possible trade partner for the Lakers, as was so often discussed last season, is the Chicago Bulls. DeMar DeRozan wanted to be a Laker in 2021. Zach LaVine played collegiately at UCLA. Chicago couldn’t even sneak into the playoffs this season, may not retain Nikola Vucevic and has no immediate path towards contention. That might suit the Bulls just fine. The post-Michael Jordan Reinsdorf family has never been known for its ambition. But paying both DeRozan and LaVine might not be tenable forever.

DeRozan will turn 34 this offseason. He’s only one year away from free agency, and the thought of paying any perimeter player that doesn’t shoot 3-pointers deep into his 30s would make any front office queasy. LaVine is a good deal younger, but has a number of serious injuries to his name and is locked in for max money for the next four years. If DeRozan is extended, the Bulls might have him locked up for that long as well. The Lakers represent a possible escape hatch, a way to turn those risky contracts into positive value before they go south. 

This is how most well-run NBA teams think. There isn’t much evidence that the Bulls think this way, though. Their recent history suggests that ownership will be happy with profitable .500 seasons. For now, it does not appear as though either is available. If the Bulls do decide to explore a deal, DeRozan is the easier acquisition for the Lakers. He makes more than $11 million less than LaVine, so the Lakers could match his salary with just Bamba and Beasley. In all likelihood, though, DeRozan would have to ask for this sort of deal for it to happen.

Even if OG Anunoby specifically asked to become a Laker, there’s little reason to believe the Raptors would grant his wish. Teams reportedly offered three first-round picks at the deadline and no deal was consummated, so the Lakers probably couldn’t get him for two. It’s worth the phone call on the off-chance that Anunoby and his agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, inform other teams that Anunoby would not re-sign elsewhere. There just isn’t any evidence suggesting he’ll do that, especially since his reported priority is more of an opportunity to handle the ball, which the Lakers aren’t in a position to offer him.

The second-draft candidates

The Lakers love getting their hands on “second draft” players, a term used around the league to describe former high draft picks that didn’t work out with their original team for some reason or another. Malik Monk and Rui Hachimura were both slam dunks on this front. Bamba? Not so much, but the Lakers still acquired him.

The first place to look for players like this is Orlando’s backcourt. The Magic have three highly drafted young guards: Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs and Markelle Fultz. They may draft a fourth with the No. 6 overall pick in June, and they have two forwards in Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner that handle the ball quite a bit. With Anthony now extension-eligible and Suggs only a year away, Orlando is going to have to make a decision on who they want to commit to fairly quickly.

Either Suggs or Anthony would suit the Lakers just fine. Anthony brings the same things to the table that Monk did. Suggs, to this point in his career, has only really been a high-end defender, but he was the point guard of one of the greatest collegiate offenses of all time at Gonzaga. It’s unclear whether or not his shot will come back, but odds are, he has more to give on that end of the floor than he’s shown thus far. Suggs was once the subject of one of James’ infamous premonitions, so the Laker legend would surely be amenable to a partnership.

Sticking with the backcourt, Indiana’s got a bit of a glut as well. Tyrese Haliburton, Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard are all keepers. Buddy Hield still has a year left on his deal. Where does that leave former No. 13 overall pick Chris Duarte? The Oregon product averaged over 13 points per game as a rookie before dipping below eight as a sophomore. The Lakers were reportedly interested in Duarte ahead of the 2021 Draft, and he is another youngster that has received James’ blessing in the past.

Speaking of James, we’ll finish up here with his former team. Cleveland is desperate for wing help, but didn’t trust Isaac Okoro to give it to them in the playoffs. He averaged just 15 minutes per game in the first round against New York, and the Knicks left him open whenever the Cavs dared to play him. Cleveland spent its assets on Donovan Mitchell. If it needs a draft pick to chase a veteran, the Lakers might be willing to oblige. Okoro is a strong defender who is crawling his way to league-average shooting on a relatively small sample. He’s extension-eligible this summer, so don’t be surprised if the Cavs explore his market before they pay him.

The ball handlers

The options for star-level ball handlers are few and far between, but if the Lakers want to take a stab at upgrading the Russell slot, that’s fairly doable. Terry Rozier seems fairly gettable at the moment, though that could change on draft night. The Charlotte Hornets hold the No. 2 overall pick in a draft whose second-best prospect plays point guard. There’s no sense in keeping Scoot Henderson, LaMelo Ball and Rozier, so if Charlotte settles on the G League point guard over Alabama wing Brandon Miller, Rozier and the three expensive seasons left on his deal are likely up for grabs.

The individual merits of Rozier and Russell on the regular-season stage are debatable. Rozier is smaller, quicker and, aside from this past season, a more reliable shooter. Russell has a bit more mid-range craft and is the superior passer. Russell is bigger, but Rozier fights harder defensively. He doesn’t quite overcome the limitations imposed by his size, but it’s not as though Russell makes much use of his size defensively either. The difference is that Rozier’s 2018 playoff run trumps anything Russell has done in the postseason. He brought a Celtics team whose leading scorer was a rookie within one game of the Finals. Russell had his moments in the playoffs, but disappeared completely in the Denver series. The Lakers have been interested in Rozier in the past. He’s someone they might explore again this summer.

Speaking of players the Lakers have liked previously, Bogdan Bogdanovic is a similarly expensive third guard on a Hawks team that is ripe for significant change in the first offseason of the Nick Ressler-Landry Fields-Quin Snyder regime. Of course, when the Lakers considered Bogdanovic in the past, it was when he was younger, cheaper and healthier. The Kings‘ version of Bogdanovic may not still exist physically. If he does? He can scale his ball-handling duties up or down comfortably depending on the availability of James.

How committed is Utah to Collin Sexton? He was necessarily salary ballast in the Donovan Mitchell trade, but Utah brought him off the bench most of last season and has a decision to make on Jordan Clarkson this summer. Talen Horton-Tucker is due more guard minutes as well considering how well he closed the season, and Utah has two first-round picks it could easily spend in the backcourt, so Sexton falls into the “worth a phone call” category as a member of a team the Lakers have successfully traded with twice in the past year. Though he remains a bit too shot-happy, young, three-level scorers are exceedingly rare.

And if we’re going down the “too shot-happy” rabbit hole, it’s probably worth asking what Houston plans to do with its guard glut if James Harden comes home this summer. Jalen Green would be too pricey for the Lakers, but Kevin Porter Jr. might be another matter. The Rockets were so uncertain of his future last offseason that they gave him a contract extension that was almost fully non-guaranteed. He was underqualified for the primary ball-handling role he had in Houston, but he’d make an excellent bench gunner if he’s comfortable accepting that sort of role.

The shooters

We mentioned Indiana’s backcourt logjam already, and it’s worth repeating here. What do the Pacers plan to do with Buddy Hield? He’s worthy of an extension based on his play last season, but Indiana would probably prefer to devote that salary slot to a forward. The Lakers don’t have one to offer, and they might not view Hield as a big enough upgrade on Beasley to dangle a first-round pick outright, but Indiana also has three later picks that might interest the Lakers at No. 26, No. 29 and No. 32. If the Lakers want another shot at the shooter they’ve long-coveted, perhaps swapping shooters and flipping No. 17 for one of those selections would do the trick.

While we’re discussing players the Lakers nearly got for Russell Westbrook, Bojan Bogdanovic‘s recent extension in Detroit seems as though it was designed for a future trade. Would the Lakers put a first-rounder on the table for a 34-year-old? Bogdanovic is still a reasonably competitive defender and an absolutely elite shooter, so there’s a chance they’d consider it. Speaking of the Pistons, Alec Burks is on a very affordable $10 million team option, has developed into a near-elite 3-point shooter that can handle the ball and has at least survived defensively in brief playoff trips. He won’t garner a first-round pick, but if the Lakers could swap Bamba and a couple of seconds for him? That would be a low-risk, high-reward option.

We’ve officially reached the “change of scenery for the sake of a change of scenery” portion of the proceedings. The Lakers couldn’t use Beasley during the playoffs. Milwaukee overused Grayson Allen in the Miami series and he failed to get up a shot on the final possession of Milwaukee’s season. The Bucks have had quite a bit of luck with Laker reclamation projects between Wes Matthews and Brook Lopez, but the salary gap between Beasley and Allen is likely too great for a deal to be feasible anyway. Bamba might make a bit more sense for the Bucks if they want to groom another young big man that can shoot, but it doesn’t seem as though the Bucks will want to take swings on young guys who can’t help them right away.

The defenders

I wouldn’t be doing my job as the writer of a Lakers trade targets story if I didn’t mention the name Alex Caruso. Until he either retires or dons the purple and gold again, fans of the team will want him back. It’s not especially likely. The Bulls reportedly wanted a king’s ransom at the deadline, and again, it doesn’t seem as though they are ready to rebuild. But you never know how a player will adjust to James and the Laker spotlight until you’ve seen it. We’ve seen Caruso handle both wonderfully. If he is at all available, the Lakers should and likely would make a serious offer for him. He can handle all of the defensive assignments Jarred Vanderbilt does without as many offensive drawbacks.

Onto two more realistic names: Gary Harris, yet another Magic guard dealing with crowding in Orlando’s backcourt, and Delon Wright, who hasn’t spent more than a single season with the same team since the Raptors traded him in 2019. The former has seemingly found his shooting stroke since leaving Denver, and would be a fitting acquisition after the Lakers just watched their own former shooting guard, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, beat them in the Western Conference finals. The latter has never been an elite shooter, but offers far more as a playmaker and is playing for a Wizards team that just hired a new team president that likely plans to make changes. Neither is as versatile defensively as Caruso (who is?), but both can hold up against most high-end guards.

The top of the 3-and-D market, though, begins in Brooklyn. The Nets haven’t settled on any sort of defined path since trading Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in February, but the fact remains that they have more wings than they can reasonably play. Mikal Bridges is a 40-minute player now, and he never misses games. Restricted free agent Cam Johnson will almost certainly be back, Joe Harris might not be movable on his current contract, and Ben Simmons is looming here even if he can’t remotely be relied upon.

That leaves Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O’Neale as clear starters on most teams, but perhaps surplus in Brooklyn. Finney-Smith would be an ideal Laker. He can defend three positions at a very high level, has grown into a somewhat better-than-average shooter, and after spending the bulk of his career alongside Luka Doncic, is used to operating in heliocentric offenses built around singularly gifted stars. If the Lakers can turn both of their movable picks into Finney-Smith, they probably should. One of those picks for O’Neale might be a bit more realistic. He can’t stay in front of elite guards, but would he need to on a team that plans to keep Vanderbilt? His defense on high-end forwards is a rarity in a conference that employs Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and he pushed his 3-point volume to a new career-high in Brooklyn without compromising his efficiency.

Source: CBSSports.com

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