The Los Angeles Lakers must choose an organizational direction

The Los Angeles Lakers got off to a disastrous 2-9 start to the 2022-23 NBA season. To make matters worse, star forward LeBron James left Wednesday’s 114-101 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in the fourth quarter with a groin injury.

On Thursday, Lakers head coach Darvin Ham said James would be day-to-day, but he was ruled out for Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. As ESPN’s Dave McMenamin noted, the Lakers only play twice through next Friday, so James could have a full week to recuperate without missing a lot of time.

Although the Lakers appear to have dodged a major bullet with James’ groin injury, they still look to the prospect of another lost season. They have the league’s least effective offense by far, largely because they’re shooting an NBA-worst 29.3% from deep.

With James turning 38 in December and oft-injured Anthony Davis turning 30 in March, the Lakers can’t afford to waste any more time. If they don’t do anything to bolster their chances of challenging for a championship this year, they need to consider a more drastic reshuffle involving Davis and/or James.

The Lakers spent the entire offseason weighing whether to trade Russell Westbrook, who turned out to be a bad choice alongside James and Davis last year, but ultimately opted against it. After a tough start to the season in which he shot 11-for-38 in three starts, they moved him to the bench, where he began to find his footing.

On Thursday, Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes reported that the Lakers are “now getting calls” regarding Westbrook’s availability, “but discussions are not at a serious stage.” The Lakers could be the ones dragging their feet in these discussions.

As part of the package to acquire Davis in 2019, the Lakers gave the New Orleans Pelicans the right to trade first-round picks in the 2023 NBA Draft. protected at the Pels, though New Orleans could defer and have that pick transported to 2025 instead.

Due to the Stepien Rule, which prohibits teams from being without a first-round pick in consecutive drafts, the Lakers can currently only trade their 2027 and 2029 first-round picks. They will only be able to include their 2023 first-round pick in a exchange only after making this selection in June.

The Lakers “seriously considered” trading Westbrook and those two first-round picks to the Indiana Pacers for Myles Turner and Buddy Hield before training camp, according to Shams Charania, Sam Amick and Jovan Buha of The Athletic. General manager Rob Pelinka ultimately decided to “stay patient and see, once again, if Westbrook can find a way to make this imperfect adjustment work with the Lakers.”

The Lakers’ dismal start to the season has made such a deal even less likely.

“I don’t believe the Lakers are currently in a position to mortgage their future with these two picks available,” Charania said. recently said. “So realizing that this team probably won’t be a championship contender, might not even be a shoe for the playoffs the way this season is going, they’re probably looking at marginal changes around the edges at best. And that means trying to make deals without the first-round picks.”

If the Lakers made only marginal changes to this roster, they would only be rearranging the lounge chairs on the Titanic. When you pin your hopes on the return of Dennis Schroder and Thomas Bryant from injury — two rotational players who signed from Los Angeles on minimal offers this past offseason — you’re pretty much dead.

James “doesn’t want to waste a season of his top-flight playing days hoping for incoming reinforcements for the 2023-24 campaign,” according to Haynes. “Other main players on the roster would also prefer to see these picks used to elevate this year’s team.”

The Lakers, however, appear to have their eyes set on a bigger prize. Sports Illustrated‘s Howard Beck recently said “they are waiting for a specific player” they would use the Westbrook-and-picks package to acquire. Meanwhile, Amick and Buha reported in mid-September that they were already considering the prospect of having more than $30 million in salary cap space available next summer.

There is only one problem with this plan: it would take perfect execution to put them back in contention for the championship.

James, Davis and Max Christie are the only three players under guaranteed contract for the Lakers next season. Add in the Pelicans’ draft pick, and they’d be about $32 million in cap space, according to Spotrac. Keith Smith. That’s not even enough for a max contract for someone with six or less years of league experience ($33.5 million), let alone 7-9 ($40.2 million) or 10 or more ($46.9 million).

Beyond that, the Lakers will be limited to re-signing their own players and signing players using the room’s mid-tier exception ($5.9 million) or on veteran minimum offers. They will only have non-Bird rights to Schroder, Bryant, Lonnie Walker IV, Troy Brown Jr. and Juan Toscano-Anderson, which means they can’t offer more than 120% of what those players have earned. this year, respectively, as the starting salary of a new agreement.

Barring a major surprise, like Kyrie Irving signing a well-below-market contract next summer, the Lakers’ championship window has likely closed. If they’re brutally honest with themselves and come to that conclusion, it would make a lot more sense to trade James and/or Davis before either can leave as free agents after the season. 2023-24.

James signed a two-year, $97.1 million extension with the Lakers in mid-August, the timing of which prevents him from being eligible for trade this year. He is under a guaranteed contract for an expected $46.9 million next year, and he has a player option of $50.7 million for the 2024-25 season.

James has already declared his intention to spend the final year of his NBA contract with his son, Bronny, who will be draft-eligible in 2024. The Lakers may not even have a first-round pick that year, depending on whether the Pelicans postpone or not until 2025 or not.

The Lakers probably won’t trade James without his blessing — they can’t risk running into his agent, Klutch Sports CEO Rich Paul — and that’s not an option for them heading into the offseason. But they also can’t risk losing him for nothing in free agency after the 2023-24 season. Even if it’s only a one-year hire, a title hopeful would probably be willing to give up some decent loot for him next summer.

In the meantime, a trade involving Davis might be a much more realistic consideration.

Bill Simmons of The Ringer said on Monday that “there is buzz” about Davis’ potential availability (h/t Jenna Lemoncelli of New York Post). Haynes reported on Thursday that the Lakers are “not considering trading him” at this time, but who’s to say that won’t change if they keep fighting for the next few months?

Davis earns about $38.0 million this year and owes $40.6 million in 2023-24 (fully secured). He has a $43.2 million early termination option for the 2024-25 season. If the Lakers were considering trading him, interested teams would likely check with his agent to see if he would be willing to sign an extension, according to Haynes.

Considering how much other star players have recently picked up in trades, a Davis trade could be the Lakers’ best chance to replenish their depth now and later. Should they sway Westbrook’s oft-rumored deal with the Pacers, they could use a Davis trade to simultaneously round out their roster and replenish their future draft capital.

With LeBron in the twilight of his career, stasis shouldn’t be an option for the Lakers this year. Pinning their hopes on a pie-in-the-sky superstar trade or free agent signing might sound nice in theory, but they would have wasted the 2022-23 season for nothing if they didn’t achieve that goal.

If they’re not willing to wrap Westbrook and their late 2020 first-round picks for a winning upgrade now, they should start taking calls on Davis. They might lose the best player in the deal, but there’s a good chance they can improve their short-term and long-term prospects.

Unless otherwise stated, all statistics via NBA.com, PBPStats, Clean the glass Where Basketball Reference. All salary information via spotrac Where RealGM. All odds via FanDuel Sports Betting.

Aubrey L. Morgan