Dec. 15 marks the unofficial start of trade season, as a significant portion of free agents who signed with teams this past offseason are now eligible to traded. That means we are about to hear a lot of Lakers fans asking, “Hey, can we get that guy?”
Through nearly 30 games of the 2021-22 regular season, Los Angeles’ play has been rather uninspiring, leading to speculation that general manager Rob Pelinka could seek to shake things up before the trade deadline. The Lakers are just above .500 (15-13) and sit in sixth place in the Western Conference standings entering Wednesday night’s game against the Mavericks.
Here’s the good news for the purple and gold: The Lakers have won five of their last seven games, and LeBron James has been terrific since returning from an early-season injury. Frank Vogel has been forced to play a variety of lineups because of injury and COVID-19 issues, but Los Angeles has found a way to keep itself above the play-in tournament line.
The bad news? The Lakers didn’t take advantage of a soft slate at the beginning of the year, and they now have the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA, per Tankathon. They also have multiple players in the league’s health and safety protocols, and there will be more injury-related absences down the road.
Simply put, this Los Angeles team doesn’t look like a title contender compared to the Warriors or Suns — not yet, at least. Could the Lakers find a true difference-maker before the Feb. 10 deadline?
Lakers trade rumors: Which players could Los Angeles target?
The Lakers are among the teams interested in 76ers star Ben Simmons and Pistons forward Jerami Grant, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania. Either of those players would certainly qualify as a major acquisition for Los Angeles, but it’s difficult to envision how Pelinka could construct a deal that works for both sides.
Simmons’ salary for the 2021-22 season is more than $33 million, and the Lakers don’t have the ability to match unless they are willing to part ways with James, Anthony Davis or Russell Westbrook. Grant’s salary is just a shade over $20 million, but Los Angeles won’t be the only team asking Detroit about his status. Other potential suitors should be able to easily beat any Lakers offer because of their lack of enticing assets (more on that below).
A blockbuster trade seems unrealistic unless a third team jumps in, and completing those deals are always complicated. The Lakers will have to search for help in the tier below Simmons and Grant. Role players such as Robert Covington, Buddy Hield and Terrence Ross may be attainable for the right price, though even those guys could be in high demand depending on how the market evolves.
Would the Lakers trade Russell Westbrook? What about Talen Horton-Tucker?
Los Angeles has “held internal discussions on trade scenarios” for Westbrook, according to Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer. However, it is unlikely that the Lakers end the Westbrook experiment so quickly because he is set to earn more than $91 million over the next two seasons, assuming he accepts his player option for 2022-23. Fischer also noted that the Sixers don’t have Westbrook on their “list of hopeful returns,” so a Simmons-for-Westbrook deal is off the table.
Horton-Tucker, meanwhile, could absolutely be on the move before the deadline, as he only makes $9.5 million. (He can’t be traded until Jan. 15 because he was signed using Bird rights with a raise of more than 20 percent over the previous season.) Horton-Tucker is averaging a career-high 11.3 points per game this season, but he has seen a notable dip in his efficiency. He is only 21 years old, though, so he could be a great pickup for a rebuilding team.
Westbrook may pop up in rumors because, well, he’s Westbrook, but Horton-Tucker is the Lakers’ most valuable trade chip.
Why the Lakers could be limited in trade talks
Outside of Horton-Tucker, which players on the Lakers’ roster are intriguing to general managers? Sure, any team would love to add James and Davis, but they aren’t going anywhere. Is Kendrick Nunn pushing anyone toward the phone? He hasn’t even played in a game this season.
Los Angeles also has a salary-matching problem. Westbrook ($44.2 million), James ($41.2 million) and Davis ($35.4 million) are making big money, but there is a major dropoff after the “Big Three.” The Lakers have 10 players being paid between $900,000-$2.7 million this season, and they’re mostly veterans with minimal trade value.
Oh, and the draft picks… not much in that cupboard. The Lakers sent out their best young players and draft picks in order to acquire Davis. The Stepien Rule dictates that teams can’t trade their first-round picks in consecutive years, so they are unable to send out a first-rounder before 2027. (Maybe Pelinka should ask Thunder GM Sam Presti if he can borrow a few.)
Bottom line: Unless Pelinka can get extremely creative, the Lakers’ roster will look largely the same in the coming months.