The Los Angeles Lakers will be a team to watch as the Feb. 8 NBA trade deadline draws near, but it may be in their best interest to sit this one out.
The Lakers have a well-known plan to chase LeBron James, Paul George, and maybe even an injured DeMarcus Cousins in free agency, with the hope that signing two of them would put them back into the hunt for a championship.
With that being the goal, the front office, led by president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka, has done what they can to clear cap space for a spending spree on free agents.
That meant making a tough cap-clearing trade by using young guard D’Angelo Russell as an incentive for the Brooklyn Nets to absorb the bloated salary of Timofey Mozgov and limiting themselves to one-year contracts last summer.
As the trade deadline is less than a week away, there will be opportunities to unload even more salary. Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., who both have contracts that extend beyond the end of the season, have seen their names pop up in rumors.
Likewise, Julius Randle, who will be looking for a pay raise as a restricted free agent, could be on the move.
With so much up in the air, a funny thing happened along the way to salary cap nirvana: the team became fun again.
Aside from a troubling nine-game losing streak, the 2017-18 Lakers have competed on a nightly basis. Their defensive improvement compared to last season, when they ranked 30th in the league, is nothing short of miraculous (they are 14th in Defensive Rating as of this writing).
When they have the ball, they blitz opponents with reckless abandon, to the extent that teams often disregard the offensive glass in a panicked attempt to get back before the Lakers zoom past them.
This season, Los Angeles holds wins over the Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs, while twice taking the Golden State Warriors to overtime.
While no one expects them to contend for a playoff spot, wins do matter. This team has had the stink of failure on them for a few seasons now, and the only cure is to win games. Randle, Clarkson, and Nance have all been crucial in that endeavor.
If the Lakers seek cap relief now for any of them, they won’t be getting talent coming back their way. Perhaps they can find a team willing to flip an expiring contract and a minor draft asset for one of them, but for the remainder of this season, the team will be worse because of it.
While ultimately signings James, George, or Cousins is the goal, and getting a step closer to that is important, they also need to finish the season with some momentum.
It’s tough to convince free agents to join a team that spent the home stretch of the season getting Hulk smashed.
Moreover, the two max-free agent plan isn’t looking so great these days. George is expressing his love for Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City while Cousins may not be the player he once was after he recovers from a torn Achilles, and appears to have taken a liking to playing with Anthony Davis.
Convincing either of them to leave may prove to be difficult.
James is the wild card. Should he decide to take his talents to Southern California, he could influence a super friend or two to follow suit. The Cleveland Cavaliers are struggling, but given James’ M.O. of joining stacked teams with a clear path to the Finals, it’s questionable whether he would really consider ending his career with the Lakers.
Not landing at least one top free agent would certainly be a disappointment, but giving away valuable pieces to clear cap space and THEN coming up empty would be an absolute disaster.
Additionally, if keeping the roster intact through the deadline leads to a few extra wins, then not only does it potentially make the Lakers a little more appealing, but it also decreases the value of the team’s first round pick, which will go to the Philadelphia 76ers if it’s No. 1 or Nos. 6-30, and the Boston Celtics if it’s Nos. 2-5.
There is no getting around it. Handing over a lottery pick to either the Celtics or 76ers will be painful. It’s not ideal to see either team add yet another asset to an already overflowing war chest, but if that pick is perhaps 12th instead of top-five, it would at least take some of the sting away.
Of course, the downside to standing pat at the deadline is that it would put a lot of pressure on the Lakers to quickly clear salary in the summer should a pair of max free agents decide to make the leap to Hollywood. That could theoretically cause Johnson and Pelinka to have to pay more to make those moves.
However, that’s a bridge that is best crossed if and when the time comes. For now, the Lakers should listen to offers at the trade deadline, and be ready to pounce should something juicy come along, but above all else be patient.
After all, sometimes the best moves are the ones that you don’t make.
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