February 22, 2024

Inside Los Angeles Lakers’ dormant trade deadline and what comes next

LOS ANGELES — The NBA trade deadline came and went without the Los Angeles Lakers making a move.

Over the past few weeks, Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka fielded what he estimated were hundreds of offers. But after a “thoughtful and tricky calculus,” Pelinka and the rest of the Lakers’ brass determined that standing pat made more sense than making a marginal improvement to a .500 roster.

“My job is to always look for ways to upgrade our roster,” Pelinka said before the Lakers’ 114-106 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Thursday. “But you can’t buy a house that’s not for sale. … The right move wasn’t there.”

The Lakers (27-26) canvassed the league for upgrades despite having limited means to improve their roster. Most conversations transitioned to teams asking for their two best assets: their 2029 first-round pick — the only pick they could trade until this summer — and Austin Reaves, according to team sources not authorized to speak publicly. Los Angeles was prudent about emptying its asset cupboard, aiming to find a move that could elevate it from a play-in team to a bona fide contender, according to those sources. It never found such a deal.

“If the right move would’ve been there at the right price, we would’ve pulled the trigger,” Pelinka said. “We’re not fearful of using future assets for now. It’s just gotta be using future assets for the now in the right way and the right deal.”

The Lakers were not close to any deals on Thursday morning, according to team sources. The closest they ever got to a trade was with the Atlanta Hawks for Dejounte Murray. The Athletic reported the framework of the deal several weeks ago: D’Angelo Russell, Jalen Hood-Schifino and that 2029 first-round pick. The trade ultimately fell apart once the Hawks repeatedly insisted on Reaves being a part of the deal, according to team and league sources.

Rival teams just didn’t covet Russell, Rui Hachimura and Gabe Vincent in trades, according to team and league sources. Any deal involving those players would’ve required the Lakers to attach assets, including their first-round pick more often than not.

With limited interest in their players with multiple years left on their contracts, one option the Lakers weighed was trading Taurean Prince, who is making $4.5 million on an expiring contract. However, head coach Darvin Ham was one of the vocal supporters of retaining Prince, according to team sources.

The Lakers also decided not to trade away a minimum-salaried player to duck under the luxury tax — they were only $1.2 million above it — as they didn’t want to save money at the expense of the strength of the roster.

In conversations with rival teams, the Lakers, according to team sources, sensed something of a “Lakers tax,” with Los Angeles believing it was asked to pay more for role players in potential deals than other suitors. The Lakers were surprised by some of the final prices quoted for certain players. Several of the Lakers’ top targets — Murray, Toronto’s Bruce Brown Jr., Brooklyn’s Dorian Finney-Smith, Washington’s Tyus Jones and Chicago’s duo of Alex Caruso and Andre Drummond — didn’t move at the deadline, a sign to Los Angeles that demands were out of control.

“We tried everything we could, and again, the market is the market,” Pelinka said. “There were very, very few sellers. I don’t think today on the deadline day there were many marquee players moved. There were a lot of buyers, and as everyone knows, when the market has few sellers and tons of buyers, the prices are very, very aggressive. And sometimes no move is better than an unwise move.”

The other factor the Lakers now have to deal with is the fallout with LeBron James, whose hourglass emoji tweet last week heightened pressure on the team and front office to turn this season around. James, 39, has a $51.4 million player option for next season, putting his future — and the Lakers’ future, to a large extent — in his hands.

The Lakers didn’t feel enough pressure from James’ actions, be it the tweet, his non-elaboration thereafter or his public flirtation with the New York Knicks last weekend, to make even a marginal upgrade to appease him.

“The last conversation I had with him was that he was focused on the guys in the locker room and making them the best players and teammates they could be,” Pelinka said.

The Lakers will now turn their attention to the buyout market. Pelinka noted they will be “very aggressive” with their open 15th roster spot and said there is “a really good group of names” available to sign. Because the Lakers didn’t spend their full mid-level exception on Vincent, they can offer free agents a prorated amount of roughly $1.5 million, compared to most other teams being able to roughly $1 million prorated.

Los Angeles is looking for a “ballhandling guard” and if not, the “best available” player.

“Obviously, we signed Gabe Vincent and thought he fit really well, but his health just hasn’t (been there),” Pelinka said. “He’s played five games. I think that would be sort of top of the list. … That would probably be the area we’re trying to address the most, just because right now we have D’Angelo Russell at point guard, but after that, we don’t have a point guard on the roster.”

The Lakers have interest in Spencer Dinwiddie and Kyle Lowry as backup point guard options, according to team sources. Dinwiddie, who will be waived by the Raptors after a deadline-day trade from Brooklyn, is the Lakers’ preference. Lowry, meanwhile, is expected to be released by Charlotte after it could not re-trade him following its earlier trade with the Miami Heat. The Lakers are expected to have competition with Dallas for Dinwiddie and Philadelphia for Lowry, among other potential suitors.

The decision to stand pat was somewhat surprising considering the Lakers entered the season with championship aspirations, but have largely hovered around .500 all season. Injuries and a brutal schedule have played a part in their mediocrity, but so too has the roster’s construction. The Lakers don’t have a reliable two-way wing or many two-way players in general. They’ve quietly made a higher percentage of their shots recently, but they don’t have the type of high-volume shooters the best offenses possess. Ham has been forced to fluctuate between offensive- and defensive-minded lineups, struggling to find the proper balance until recently.

Los Angeles didn’t necessarily need an overhaul like last season’s deadline, but it could’ve benefitted from adding a player that addressed one of its several needs (high-volume 3-point shooting, perimeter/wing defense, non-Davis interior defense). Dinwiddie doesn’t address any of those issues. Lowry’s plus-shooting and defense could help, but he’s almost 38 and coming off multiple injury-riddled seasons.

There might not have been a move that turned the Lakers into a contender, but there were likely moves that would’ve given them a better shot to at least avoid the Play-In Tournament or advance in the playoffs. Nonetheless, they are betting on Cam Reddish, Vincent and possibly Jarred Vanderbilt returning from injury to bolster the rotation.

After saying that Vanderbilt “to date has been able to avoid a plan of surgery” on his injured right foot, Pelinka clarified that a season-ending surgery is still a possibility for Vanderbilt.

“Until an injury is healed and the player’s back, you’re kind of always in the evaluation process of figuring out what it’s gonna take to get a player healthy and back on the court,” Pelinka said. “I would just say we’re hopeful that we can get Jarred back healthy and on the court without surgery, but you never know. Time will tell. But that’s certainly our hope.”

According to team and league sources, there is some internal pessimism regarding Vanderbilt’s potential return. Before the announcement he was set to be re-evaluated in three to four weeks, team sources believed he was trending toward being done for the season.

Moving forward, the Lakers plan to use the three picks that they will have available this summer — 2031, 2029 and either 2024 or 2025, depending on which pick the New Orleans Pelicans choose to receive as part of their return for 2019’s Anthony Davis trade — to pursue a star via trade. Three potential targets are Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young and Kyrie Irving, according to team and league sources. The Athletic has previously reported on the franchise’s interest in Young and Irving.

This isn’t the first time the Lakers have set their sights on the elusive third star of the James-Davis era.

The Lakers courted Kawhi Leonard in 2019 in an attempt to team him up with James and Anthony Davis before he signed with the LA Clippers. They traded for Russell Westbrook in 2021 after inquiring about Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal and DeMar DeRozan, respectively. After the Westbrook trade became one of the worst in modern NBA history, the Lakers pivoted to chasing Kyrie Irving in the summer of 2022 and then again at the 2023 trade deadline, falling short as the Brooklyn Nets retained him through the summer before eventually trading him to Dallas ahead of last season’s deadline.

This summer could be different, especially if the Lakers are willing to package Reaves with their three first-round picks. That’ll at least get them in the conversation for any potentially available star. But that plan also requires James to stay in Los Angeles and for him and Davis to remain as healthy and productive as they’ve been this season.

The potential payoff is significant, but it’s also not without considerable risk.

“We had one first-round draft pick was our only sort of hook to fish with,” Pelinka said. “And this summer in June, at the time of the draft, we’ll have three first-round draft picks to look for deals, which I think will really unlock access to potentially a greater or bigger swing. And we didn’t want to shoot a small bullet now that would only lead to very marginal improvement at the expense of making a much bigger and more impactful movement potentially in June and July.”

(Photo: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)