Since the 2016 Finals, LeBron-led teams have done one thing and one thing only: spun their tires. Despite making the finals every year, there was clear evidence that the Cavs hit the ceiling of what a LeBron-and-the-peanut-gallery team can achieve.
Last night, the Lakers lost to the now 9-35 Cleveland Cavaliers, who were riding an 11-game losing streak, and were on the road at the Staples Center, in pretty embarrassing fashion even though it was a 6-point game. The Lakers were, of course, short LeBron James whose absence due to a groin injury was extended at least until mid-January. The Cavs, however, were short both Kevin Love and Larry Nance Jr., both of whom are among the sole talents on this barren team.
This begs the question: Did LeBron leave the Cavaliers only to play with a team just as bad? Basically, yes, he did. Of course, this is complicated by the fact that it’s widely accepted that LeBron going to LA was significantly impacted by the size and profitability of the LA market, compared to Cleveland. However, the King’s absence has shown that the Lakers, without LeBron, would essentially be bottom-feeding in the West along with the Suns. To my best estimation, I’d say they would be lucky to break 32 or 33 wins.
So, if the Lakers want to make anything out of LeBron’s precious remaining healthy years (which are now jeopardized by the first major injury he’s sustained in years) then they need to make a move, and fast. There is no time to waste. First of all, they need to stop the bleeding during the remainder of LeBron’s sabbatical. Even if he comes back at full-strength, which is far from a given, then they will need to step it up to get themselves back into the playoff race. They are still barely above .500, but if you’re trying to stay in the top 8 bubble, you cannot and I mean cannot lose to the Cavaliers. There is a very, very reasonable chance that a team like the Jazz, Pelicans, or Timberwolves start knocking on the door of the 8th seed.
More importantly, LeBron is 34, and just sustained a pretty significant injury unlike what he’s seen in this stage of his career. They can’t wait until Anthony Davis is a free-agent to realize it’s go time. So, what can the Lakers do to get themselves an even competent supporting cast for LeBron?
First, the obvious move is trading for Anthony Davis. This, of course, implies that the Pelicans are interested in moving him, which is not likely with the current landscape. In fact, the Pelicans are more likely to be buyers than sellers in this trade market, but that’s a different story. Let’s assume that Davis requests a trade before the deadline. The Celtics, without trading Kyrie Irving, cannot trade for Anthony Davis. Now, if I’m Danny Ainge, there is not a single player that is safe in an Anthony Davis trade, but the important thing here is that Boston is unlikely to make a move until after this trade season.
Aside from his unbelievable talent, AD fills a lot of holes for the Lakers, specifically. Their defense in the paint is abysmal, and they lack a true starting-caliber center. McGee has been unreliable, Tyson Chandler is fine off the bench but is also old as dirt, so he’s not a guarantee going forward. Zubac is, like, fine if you’re a middling team. But are any of these guys going to take care of business against, say, recovered-Demarcus Cousins? Or more realistically, Rudy Gobert of AD himself? Doubtful.
Aside from his defensive strength and versatility, Davis is a do-it-all scorer who has positional flexibility to play with other centers or other power forwards. If you could somehow get the trade done without giving up Kyle Kuzma, which would be extremely difficult, there would be a lot of interesting rotations with him, Davis, and LeBron, not all at the same time, even. That would be an indisputable upgrade defensively and offensively, even if you lost some depth to make it happen.
If Magic could get the deal done by giving up Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, someone else of marginal value and a pick? I would do that, easily. Of course, if I’m New Orleans, I’d want Kuzma, and honestly there is little guarantee that Kuzma would mesh well with AD and LeBron, despite the fact that he’s the best performer of the moveable pieces.
The important thing about AD is that the Lakers cannot afford to wait until after this season to move for him, if they decide that’s what the move is. They will not win a bidding war with Boston. They simply won’t. They have more valuable assets, both present and future, and are arguably a more desirable destination in the Eastern Conference, and on a team where you aren’t playing second-fiddle to a balding 34-year-old, or watching Ingram, who’s playing like a mumble-rapper-Andrew-Wiggins, miss mid-range jumpers.
Another trade I’d be interested in as the Lakers front office is for Nikola Vucevic of the Orlando Magic. The Magic may still believe they can slide into a playoff spot, but any responsible front office will realize that losing in the first round won’t help you much, when next year will be nearly equally as wide open, and just coast for this season.
The smart move is to become sellers in this market, for Orlando. Vucevic is a potent scorer, and he’s on a pretty modest contract at about $12M, although he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. This trade, for say, KCP and a pick, or maybe any one of Hart, Ingram, or Ball, could pretty reasonably be balanced. KCP makes sense as their salaries are pretty balanced, and they both would be off the books after this year.
If Orlando could gain a pick or a player under contract for Vucevic, who might easily leave this year anyway, would be a score. Even if the Magic might make the playoffs, which is a stretch in and of itself, Vucevic probably isn’t a part of their long-term vision.
I went into further detail with those two scenarios than I originally intended, but the general idea is the more important aspect of this piece than the hypothetical trades themselves: the Lakers cannot sit this one out. With this injury as a potential turning point in LeBron’s career, there is absolutely no guarantee that they will have any more chances to win a title. The Warriors are the most vulnerable they’ve been, and with the potential to lose KD or Klay Thompson after this season, next year is really the last possible year before we’re talking about post-prime LeBron.
If they want to win a title, in the span of LeBron’s contract specifically, there really is no time like the present. There’s always a chance that this team finds it’s rhythm in the post-season, as LeBron always does, but none of the young guys on this roster have playoff experience, and many of them (Ball and Ingram specifically) have glaring, exploitable flaws akin to those that get exposed in the playoffs. Even assuming all of that, if the Lakers don’t do too hot into the end of the regular season, they may be playing a Golden State, Denver, Oklahoma City type team in the very first round.
I may be beating a dead horse here, but if this team wants to avoid the fate of the Cavaliers, they need to do more than spin their tires in the mud.
Editor’s Note: I do think that if the Lakers happen to make a significant move, they will in all likelihood try to move Ingram. This is mostly due to fit, as Ingram is just the odd-man out. He’s too inefficient to play in a team with, hypothetically, LeBron and AD. Kuzma is too valuable as a role player, and Lonzo is actually the ideal point-guard for a LeBron team, for all of his faults.