With less than three weeks remaining before the 2017 NBA draft, it is that time of year when rumors are rampant about who is about to be traded to the Los Angeles Lakers or who the team is trying to unload.
Magic Johnson, head of basketball operations for the purple and gold, has already announced that from last season’s roster only Brandon Ingram is completely safe. Such pronouncements are destined to add fuel to the rumor mill.
A month ago the focus was on D’Angelo Russell, who is talented but in his brief career so far has not met expectations either on or off the court.
This past week, however, the focus has shifted away from Russell and onto his teammate Jordan Clarkson. First, there was a rumor that the team was “open” to trade offers for Clarkson, then the next day the rumors escalated with reports that the team is “actively” seeking to trade him.
It bears remembering that 99% of NBA rumors turn out to be false, so it is hard to determine whether Clarkson fans should really be worried. Johnson made it clear he doesn’t expect to be an active participant in the free agency market this summer, but he hasn’t said he won’t look for trades.
Johnson has spoken highly of the Lakers’ young core and at times suggested that he looks forward to giving them one more year to prove themselves before summer of 2018 when players like Russell Westbrook and Paul George will be free agents. At the same time, however, when a team’s president of basketball operations publicly announces that no one other than Ingram is safe, that must mean something or why would he say it?
It is one thing if the Lakers are going to pursue George this summer for fear that he will otherwise be traded to the Boston Celtics or another contender, who might convince him to stay with that team after next season. Under that scenario, if the Lakers have to part with Clarkson to make it happen, most fans would understand.
But if the Lakers are thinking of trading Clarkson just to dump his salary, or to pick up another low first round draft choice, that would be very ill-advised.
Johnson has said he wants cap space for next summer, but that doesn’t mean the Lakers have to dump salary now and in the process weaken the team for next season. They are slated to have around $20 million in cap space and potentially more depending on if Nick Young opts-out and whether the Lakers keep Tarik Black’s non-guaranteed deal on the books.
Additionally if Corey Brewer, a very serviceable NBA Player with an expiring contract next season, is unloaded, that removes more than $7 million from the books.
It is hard to understand how teams like Golden State and Cleveland are able to employ several top tier stars and still have enough cap space to afford some of the league’s best complimentary players. Meanwhile, the Lakers don’t have anything close to a single star but are constrained by the salary cap.
Still, if they have to create cap space for summer 2018, there is time to do it later.
The Lakers have been miserable the past four seasons. But for the last three, Clarkson has been, overall, their best and most consistent player, and he proved his loyalty last summer by re-signing for less money than he might have commanded elsewhere. Clarkson’s high character should mean something.
Clarkson is someone the team can count on to play a full season. In an era where many players sit out to rest or with minor injuries, and thus are lucky to appear in 65 games, Clarkson has been an ironman,
enduring the rigors of three full seasons without missing a beat. No one else of importance on the Lakers roster has come close.
Another thing the Lakers could count on from Clarkson, more than anyone else the last three years, is that he was going to “bring it” every game. Clarkson plays flat out hard every minute of every contest, whether or not he is having his best game or not. Such consistent energy was in short supply last season, where the level of intensity shown by Russell, Ingram, and Julius Randle often waned and sometimes they were practically invisible.
Russell got a pass from some people for his underwhelming rookie season because they felt Byron Scott did not use him properly and messed with him mentally. Randle got a pass from many people because he missed his rookie season with an injury and had to come back slowly the following year. Ingram was just too thin when he was drafted, so according to some he couldn’t help but shoot poorly last season.
No one ever seems to cut Clarkson any slack. It has become popular to say that he has peaked and will not get any better. People who feel that way may be right but more likely they are sorely mistaken, as no one has played the past three years under more difficult circumstances.
At first he spent much of his time down in the D-League with the Los Angeles D-Fenders. Then, midway through his rookie year, he was asked to become the team’s starting point guard and finished as arguably the second best rookie in the entire league.
The next season he was told to play shooting guard to make room for Russell, and he had to endure the Kobe Bryant farewell tour which resulted in a wasted year for the entire franchise. Then, in his third season, he was asked to be a sixth man. After the All-Star break he reverted to the starting point guard position again.
Through it all, JC kept his nose clean, his mouth shut, and did whatever he was asked, continuing to play with maximum energy and intensity. With Bryant in and out of the line up in Clarkson’s second season, and with Coach Walton constantly juggling units last year in part due to injuries, who knows what Clarkson could become if he ever got a chance to play in a stable environment with the same unit.
Clarkson is the fastest and most athletic player on the Lakers. Even if they draft Lonzo Ball, and Russell gets tougher, stays heathy, and learns to play with consistent energy, the team is going to need a scorer and leader off the bench.
The second unit, which was tops in the NBA for much of last season, already lost Lou Williams and would be seriously undermined by the loss of Clarkson.
The front office needs to wise up and see things for how they really are, which means they need to recognize Clarkson’s value to the team which is enormous – and he hasn’t yet turned 25. If they want to package him in a trade for a star that is one thing, but trading him for any other reason is very likely to prove disastrous.