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Optimism and unease abound as Lakers attempt to shed cap space heading into February trade deadline and 2018 offseason
By: Mason Kern
In yet another attempt for the storied franchise to shed contracts in hope of securing a superstar in the 2018 offseason, the Los Angeles Lakers have placed combo guard Jordan Clarkson, undersized center Julius Randle, and forward Larry Nance Jr. on the trading block. This comes as surprise for many as this is the first time this season that Nance Jr.’s name surfaced in trade rumors, especially considering President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson had referred to him as the Lakers’ “secret weapon” earlier in the season.
“Our secret weapon is Larry Nance…we’ve gotten calls from a lot of teams wanting to trade for him and Brandon Ingram and we’ve said ‘no.’ Larry is such a fundamentally sound basketball player,” Johnson said, as reported by LakersNation.com.
As far as prospective acquisition contenders, the Lakers have been linked to superstar Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Paul George since his days on the Indiana Pacers. Notable since it’s the last season under his current five-year, $91,572,660 contract before his 2018 player option comes into play, where he will most likely opt out of the final year of his contract. With this, teams are circling and making moves to clear space in order to potentially sign George this offseason. George will most certainly command a max contract this summer, which is likely a primary main reason why the Lakers are trying to clear space on their books in order to have a chance at this pricey pick. The fit is seemingly a good one, as George also has ties to Los Angeles, and has been known for wanting to play in L.A. at some point in his career.
Interestingly, one name that has not circulated in the most recent trade rumors is small forward Luol Deng. The Lakers paid massive amounts for the services of Deng and center Timofey Mozgov back in the 2016 offseason, and have paid a significant price both on and off the court ever since. They were able to shed Mozgov’s contract in a trade with the Brooklyn Nets that saw former Lakers point guard D’Angelo Russell and Mozgov get swapped for former Nets center Brook Lopez and Kyle Kuzma— the 27th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft that has turned into a standout rookie now tied for second in points per game amongst rookies with 16.9 points per game. This includes Philadelphia 76’ers small forward Ben Simmons who also averages 16.9 points per game, and Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell who leads the rookie class with 18.5 points per game.
The Lakers rumors have also been linked to LeBron James– arguably the best player in the world—for this offseason, as well as Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker. However, the latter is surprisingly less likely to happen than the former. The problem with the possibility of James pivoting to the Lakers lies in the fact that he wants to win a championship… now. He has made six straight NBA Finals appearances, and is 3-5 in his win/loss ratio for his eight total trips. The past three years have seen the same matchup in the championship between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron’s Cavs are 1-2 in the three matchups, mainly because of Kevin Durant’s decision to leave the Thunder in pursuit of a ring with the Warriors, which he achieved in the 2016-17 season in a 4-1 rout of the Cavs. It would not make sense for LeBron to jump ship to join the Lakers this offseason, as Cleveland has been dutifully assembling a team that can match the prowess of Warriors in the near-term. The Lakers will most likely be no more than a 35-win team this season at best, which also significantly dampens the likelihood that they can attract the likes of LeBron this offseason, even with a lucrative max contract offer.
In George’s case, this is his first season with the Thunder, rounding out their “Big Three” of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George, himself. Even with these heavy hitters, it’s been a shaky first quarter of the season as the Thunder currently sit sixth in the Western Conference with a 22-19 record. The best-case scenario for the Lakers is that the Thunder miss the playoffs entirely, combined with a max contract offer to entice a George to move away from Oklahoma City. It’s said that “money talks”—especially considering the Oakland Raiders new head coach hire of Jon Gruden, who was enticed to leave “Monday Night Football” thanks to a 10-year $100 million contract offer. But in a league where the ultimate goal is winning a ring, which George has never accomplished, even money often isn’t enough to persuade players to switch teams. In fact, players sometimes even take pay cuts in order to team up with other league superstars –a road the NBA seems to be traveling with more frequency as more high-caliber talent manifests, and salary caps increase in kind.
For his part, Jordan Clarkson has been a consistent combo guard that earned his way to a 4 year, $50,000,000 contract. He has continuously been a part of the “Sixth Man of the Year” conversation, and is so again averaging 13.9 points while shooting 34.0% from 3-point land this season coming off the bench. He still has around $26 million guaranteed left on his contract and is the main player, outside of Deng, whose contract the Lakers apparently desire to shed. His consistency and efficiency in a limited amount of time would make him a desirable asset for a number of NBA teams who need a combo point/shooting guard who can create space off the dribble, take it to the rack, shoot the trey ball and find the open man.
Lastly, Randle is finally starting to come into his own having settled into his role with the Lakers, however he has always been a frustrated player who seeks to bully his opponents on the block despite his undersized stature. He committed himself to a strict workout regimen last offseason and clearly came into this season with a vengeance. Even so, he’s seen limited time on the court this season, averaging just 22.9 minutes per game in head coach Luke Walton’s fast-paced system, and finds himself averaging 13.4 points per game. However, with increased minutes he’s increased production, as in the last ten Lakers games Randle’s minutes have increased to 24.5, resulting in an average 16.1 points per game in that timeframe. He’s in the midst of a 4 year, $13,545,962 contract, and hits restricted free agency in the summer of 2019.
Overall, the likelihood of the Lakers scoring a singular superstar this offseason is slim, let alone two, given the NBA is in an era where players are foregoing funds in pursuit of their ultimate goal: to win a championship. Even while it starts maneuvering, the Lakers front office really needs to decide if it’s prudent to go all-in on trading valuable assets in Clarkson, Randle and Nance Jr. in what could very well be futile hopes of landing George or James. Or, they could adopt a “no risk, no reward” mindset and stay the current course and see where the chips fall. At the end of the day, this legendary organization has not made the playoffs since the 2012-13 season in which they were swept in the first-round by the San Antonio Spurs. Even the die-hard Lakers Nation has had its patience and loyalty tested with the limited success this beloved franchise has realized since the 2007-10 seasons.
Time will tell if precarious power-trades this off season gets them back in the game in a meaningful way. Until then, we’ll have to wait and how all the speculation effects the Lakers on the court. They’re currently on a two-game winning streak having beaten the Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings in their last two games. They host the San Antonio Spurs at Staples Center on Thursday, January 11 at 7:30 p.m. PST.