After a listless performance against a poor Memphis Grizzlies team, the Los Angeles Lakers finished their three-game road trip with another blowout loss at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The back-to-back games doesn’t figure to quiet a rumor mill that took a brief hiatus during the team’s recent four-game winning streak. The Lakers’ latest losses resurrected the nightmare of a brutal December in which the team failed to win a single game at home and lost nine straight.
It was a stretch that perhaps put head coach Luke Walton on the hot seat, which not long ago would have been unthinkable.
After LaVar Ball’s recent assertion that Walton has lost the locker room and that no one wants to play for him, a report surfaced that the Lakers may be planning to replace Walton with former Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale.
It in some sense was denied by the Lakers, albeit in a meek fashion, as controlling owner Jeanie Buss and president of basketball operations Magic Johnson each voiced their support of Walton on Twitter.
Of course, most of the speculation continues to focus on Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, both of whom were drafted by the Lakers in 2014 and have been one of the few mainstays since. Nonetheless, they each have been the subject of relentless trade rumors the past year.
So much so that it is impossible to think it has not affected their focus on the court. One bright spot in the recent loss to the Grizzles was the play of Larry Nance Jr.
He battled through back/hip discomfort and finished with 15 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks and three steals. Nance continues to play well despite a recent report suggesting that the Lakers have added him to the list of players they would be interested in trading.
This season, in a tick under 22 minutes per game, Nance is averaging 8.7 points on 58.9 percent shooting from the field, 6.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.4 steals. He’s on pace to set career highs in each category but minutes played (22.9) and assists (1.5).
Nance is arguably the team’s best defender, and he is the most mature, articulate leader among all the young players on the roster.
On Sept. 12, 2017, Johnson called Nance the Lakers’ “secret weapon.” Four months later, one can only surmise that things have changed. Losing tends to do that. Still, does trading Nance make any sense?
Randle and Clarkson are primarily on the trading block for financial reasons. Johnson infamously showed his hand last May when he stated publicly that he was going “all-in” on signing two max- free agents this summer. It is the worst-kept secret in the world that Johnson covets LeBron James and Paul George, with DeMarcus Cousins as a possible fall back option.
The problem is, the Lakers need to shed salary to make signing two players to max-contracts a possibility. Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell Pope are the team’s two highest paid players, but their contracts expire at the end of the season.
Aside from the inactive Luol Deng, the next highest-paid Laker is Clarkson, who is owed $25.9 million over the next two seasons.
The situation with Randle is more complex. He is on the last year of his rookie deal, and if the Lakers saw him as an important piece moving forward, they would have offered him a contract extension last summer.
For example, Gary Harris, who was the 19th pick in the 2014 draft, was given a four-year, $84 contract extension from the Denver Nuggets. Randle, who was the seventh pick in that same draft, was reportedly not offered an extension.
Randle is eligible to become a restricted free agent this summer. He is 23, and on the right team with a center who can space the floor, could be a starter and important contributor. Therefore, it is likely that some team will offer him a long term contract at $15 million a year, or even higher.
Were the Lakers to match that salary, while still absorbing Deng’s money in some fashion, it would make it difficult, if not impossible, to free up enough cap space to sign James and another max player.
For this reason, the Lakers have to make a decision on Randle soon. If they know they will not match a big offer next summer, some would argue that it makes sense to move him before the Feb. 8 trade deadline, so as to guarantee themselves some sort of return.
But with Nance, a trade makes no sense. He has one year left on his rookie deal which pays him $1,271,000 this season and $2,272,000 next year, which is hardly a blip against the salary cap. It is likely that the Lakers will be able extend his contract for an affordable sum.
Nance is valuable on and off the court. He can start or come off the bench. He can play the four or five positions. His high-flying dunks electrify the team and the fans. He is no doubt a calming influence in the locker room.
Nance would be an important role player on any team. Yet, there is something about him that led both Walton and his predecessor Byron Scott to install him as a starter for prolonged stretches. It does not always appear on the stat sheets, but Johnson was not far off when he called Nance a “secret weapon.”
So what sense would it make to trade Nance? Would the Lakers really let go of both Nance and Randle, which would change the power forward position from the team’s biggest strength to a potential weakness?
Thus, there is speculation that the Lakers are willing to part with Nance just to induce another team to take Clarkson. That would be a huge mistake.
Giving up a player like Nance just to get rid of Clarkson’s salary is short sighted. If they can be packaged in a trade for Paul George, that is one thing, but trading them both for an expiring contract (and someone who may leave at the end of the season), or a late first-round or second-round draft pick, is ludicrous.
Whatever decision is made with Randle and Clarkson, keeping Larry Nance Jr. on the team long-term would be a slam dunk for the Lakers. He is a valuable, affordable option, a high flying, defense-oriented fan favorite on the court and a mature voice in the locker room.
Johnson and Rob Pelinka stressed last summer that they want high character individuals on the team. That is Nance in spades.
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