The Los Angeles Lakers have gotten off to a predictably disastrous 2-9 start to the 2022-23 NBA season. Making 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’s been ruled out for Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings. As ESPN’s Dave McMenamin noted, the Lakers play only twice between now and next Friday, so James could have a full week to recover without missing much time.
Although the Lakers appear to have dodged a major bullet with James’ groin injury, they’re still staring down the prospect of another lost season. They have by far the league’s least efficient offense, in large part because they’re shooting an NBA-worst 29.3 percent from deep.
With James set to turn 38 in December and the oft-injured Anthony Davis turning 30 in March, the Lakers can’t afford to waste more time. If they don’t make a move to fortify their chances of contending for a championship this year, they need to consider a more drastic shakeup involving Davis and/or James.
The Lakers spent all offseason weighing whether to trade Russell Westbrook, who proved to be a poor fit alongside James and Davis last year, but they ultimately opted against it. After a rocky start to the season in which he shot a combined 11-of-38 over three starts, they moved him to the bench, where he’s begun to find his footing.
On Thursday, Bleacher Report’s Chris Haynes reported the Lakers are “now receiving calls” about Westbrook’s availability, “but talks are not at a serious stage.” The Lakers might be the ones dragging their feet in those discussions.
As part of the package to acquire Davis in 2019, the Lakers gave the New Orleans Pelicans the right to swap first-round picks in the 2023 NBA draft. They also owe their fully unprotected 2024 first-rounder to the Pels, although New Orleans can defer and have that pick convey in 2025 instead.
Because of the Stepien Rule, which prohibits teams from being without first-round picks in back-to-back drafts, the Lakers currently can trade only their 2027 and 2029 first-rounders. They’ll be able to include their 2023 first-round pick in a trade only after they make that 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 leading up to training camp, according to Shams Charania, Sam Amick and Jovan Buha of The Athletic. General manager Rob Pelinka ultimately decided to “remain patient and see, yet again, if Westbrook might find a way to make this imperfect fit with the Lakers work.”
The Lakers’ dismal start to the season has made such a deal even less likely.
“I don’t believe the Lakers are in a position right now to mortgage their future with those two available picks,” Charania recently said. “So, realizing that this team is probably not going to be a championship contender, might not even be a shoe-in for the playoffs the way that 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 make only marginal changes to this roster, they’d just be rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. When you’re pinning your hopes on the return of Dennis Schroder and Thomas Bryant from injuries—two rotation players who signed in L.A. on minimum deals this past offseason—you’re basically drawing dead.
James “does not want to waste a season of his high-level playing days in hopes of incoming reinforcements for the 2023-24 campaign,” according to Haynes. “Other core players on the roster would likewise prefer those picks to be used to elevate this year’s team.”
The Lakers appear to have their eyes on a bigger prize, though. Sports Illustrated‘s Howard Beck recently said “they’re waiting for a specific player” on whom they’d use the Westbrook-and-picks package to acquire. Meanwhile, Amick and Buha reported in mid-September that they’re already looking ahead to the prospect of having $30-plus million in available salary-cap space next summer.
There’s just one problem with that plan: It would require picture-perfect execution to put them back into championship contention.
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 at roughly $32 million in cap space, according to Spotrac’s Keith Smith. That isn’t even enough for a max contract for someone with six or fewer years of experience in the league ($33.5 million), much less 7-9 ($40.2 million) or 10 or more ($46.9 million).
Beyond that, the Lakers be limited to re-signing their own players and signing players using the room mid-level exception ($5.9 million) or on veteran-minimum deals. They’ll only have non-Bird rights on Schroder, Bryant, Lonnie Walker IV, Troy Brown Jr., and Juan Toscano-Anderson, which means they can’t offer more than 120 percent of what those players earned this year, respectively, as the starting salary of a new deal.
Barring a major surprise—such as Kyrie Irving signing a far-below-market contract next summer—the Lakers’ championship window has likely slammed shut. If they’re brutally honest with themselves and arrive at that conclusion, it would be far more logical to trade James and/or Davis before either can leave as free agents following the 2023-24 season.
James signed a two-year, $97.1 million extension with the Lakers in mid-August, the timing of which prevents him from being trade-eligible this year. He’s under guaranteed contract for a projected $46.9 million next year, and he has a $50.7 million player option 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 might not even have a first-round pick that year, depending on whether the Pelicans defer it to 2025 or not.
The Lakers likely won’t trade James without his blessing—they can’t risk running afoul of his agent, Klutch Sports CEO Rich Paul—and that isn’t an option for them until the offseason regardless. But they also can’t risk losing him for nothing in free agency after the 2023-24 season. Even if he’s only a one-year rental, a title hopeful would likely be willing to give up a decent haul for him next summer.
In the meantime, a trade involving Davis might be a far more realistic consideration.
Bill Simmons of The Ringer said Monday that “there’s some buzz” about Davis’ potential availability (h/t Jenna Lemoncelli of the New York Post). Haynes reported Thursday that the Lakers “are not considering trading him” for now, but who’s to say that won’t change if they continue to scuffle for the next few months?
Davis is earning roughly $38.0 million this year and is owed $40.6 million in 2023-24 (fully guaranteed). He has a $43.2 million early termination option for the 2024-25 season. If the Lakers were to consider trading him, interested teams would likely inquire with his agent about whether he’d be open to signing an extension, according to Haynes.
Considering how much other star players have fetched in trades recently, a Davis trade might be the Lakers’ best chance to replenish their depth both now and later. If they swung the oft-rumored Westbrook 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 should not 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 fall short of that goal.
If they aren’t willing to package Westbrook and their late-2020 first-round picks for a win-now upgrade, they should begin taking calls on Davis. They might be losing the best player in the deal, but there’s a real chance that they could improve both their short- and long-term outlook.