By Devin Zanskas
With 17 championships, the Lakers are tied for the most rings in NBA history, and they reside in the second-most populous city in the U.S. Although the Lakers’ first five titles were won while they were in Minneapolis, the odds have always been in their favor, and the Lakers have capitalized on that. Since their inaugural season in 1949, the Lakers’ longest streak without a championship is 18 years, and they’re the only team that’s never gone two complete decades without winning a title. The Finals MVP was first awarded in 1969 to Jerry West, and of the Lakers who won this, only seven of the 13 were drafted by LA, while Boston drafted all six of their Finals MVPs. Tanking, even if it’s been around forever, has been talked about much more over the past ten seasons than before, and that’s because as teams become smarter, players keep getting better. The more talent that’s in the league, the easier it is to be stuck in the middle of the pack instead of ascending to championship contention. The Lakers were one of the first 11 NBA organizations, so winning the number one overall pick wasn’t always so far-fetched. However, the Lakers have proven that they can nail home run swings in free agency or via trade more often than most franchises. Therefore, the Lakers’ demise might not be the best for someone to hitch their wagon to.
The Westbrook trade was supposed to create the next great Big 3 in the association, but the sacrifice of depth and the redundancy of stars who thrive mostly with the ball in their hands led to turmoil. Although the drama of the Lakers not meeting their original expectations has perhaps diminished due to the acceptance of their circumstances, they are still currently outside of the play-in picture. There are two routes the Lakers could take in order to address the hole they’ve found themselves in yet again: cut their losses, or act quickly to climb up the standings. The first trade of the season involved the Lakers and a familiar friend, the Wizards, exchanging Rui Hachimura for Kendrick Nunn and three second round picks. This doesn’t eliminate the chances of a Westbrook trade, but it may signal that a move of such magnitude isn’t the cards due to a lack of interest in Russ, or the concern over losing more draft picks. Most if not all of the potential Westbrook trade destinations, the Hornets, Bulls, Pacers, Spurs, and Jazz, have probably already been discussed. Teams may expect one of the Lakers’ distant first round picks just for taking on Westbrook’s $47.1 million, let alone the first-round pick that it might cost for someone that would make a real impact.
Per Shams, the Nets traded Kyrie Irving and Markieff Morris to the Mavericks for Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, an unprotected 2029 first round pick, and two second round picks. Kyrie Irving requested a trade after there were talks of a new deal, but he and the Nets weren’t able to reach an agreement. With the hesitation that other teams may have had to spend assets, then invest a new contact into Kyrie, the reduced price may have been in reach of the Lakers. Similar to the Nets’ trade from last year, they were given so little notice of a star player threatening to leave in free agency, that they ended up acquiring Ben Simmons, who was available for months. The compromising situation that the Nets’ found themselves in again likely gave hope to Lakers fans that they’d have a chance to move Westbrook and picks for Kyrie. Ultimately, the attractive combination of present-day contributions from Finney-Smith and Dinwiddie, and the bet against the uncertain future of any team in 2029, outbid the Lakers. Therefore, it may be time for the Los Angeles to look towards free agency targets to build the next great Lakers squad.
Some players that could be free agents this summer are Bogdan Bogdanovic, Alec Burks, Jerami Grant, Kelly Oubre, Josh Richardson, Terrence Ross, Fred VanVleet, and Nikola Vucevic. Those listed are currently on squads that are no higher in the standings than the play-in picture, so the temptation to adopt a more important role with the Lakers may be stronger than the urge to return. The Lakers’ actual cap space for next year is -$70 million, but they will have $111.2 million in cap holds barring any moves. Therefore, the Lakers could feasibly add one or two significant acquisitions into that $41.2 million difference, and round out the rest of their roster with minimum or near-minimum salaries. Nevertheless, they remain within a rock and hard place in terms the moves they could make if they’re competing as much as possible for LeBron’s legacy, or building towards the future.