It was exactly one year ago, on Jan. 23, 2023, when the Los Angeles Lakers began to reformat their team on the fly.
With the NBA trade deadline looming in less than three weeks and his team mired in a sub-.500 record past the halfway mark of the schedule, Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka traded Kendrick Nunn and three second-round picks to the Washington Wizards to acquire Rui Hachimura.
A flurry of movement would follow at the deadline, and the Lakers, a team that couldn’t win one out of every two games for the majority of the season, closed 18-9 — winning two of every three — to clinch a postseason spot and reach the Western Conference finals.
Just over halfway through this season, the Lakers are once again hovering around .500 — 22-22 and No. 9 in the West after winning three of their past four heading into Tuesday’s game against the LA Clippers — and again have to decide if now is the time to reshape this roster. And to what extent.
Lakers coach Darvin Ham said Sunday that L.A. «absolutely» has enough to compete for a championship already with stars Anthony Davis and LeBron James, so long as their teammates play their best around them.
«We know we have a hell of a 1-2 punch with AD and Bron,» Ham said. «And it’s just guys getting comfortable and being aggressive and not waiting for those two guys to do everything. Play your part, be supportive, but also be a threat yourself. Be deliberate. Be decisive. So we can help give those guys the support they need.»
With that in mind, here are the three possible paths forward for the Lakers, with the Feb. 8 NBA trade deadline just 16 days away.
Option 1: Stay put
Ham has good reason to have faith in these Lakers, even with their ups and downs. Their core fueled a long playoff run and remains a threat in the eyes of their opposition.
«With the experience that they have, the record — it doesn’t matter if they are the No. 1 seed or the No. 12. You see them, you view them the same way,» Portland Trail Blazers coach Chauncey Billups said over the weekend. «To me, that team is kind of built for the playoffs.»
And the Lakers have barely had a chance to see what they have so far. The front office wanted a monthlong period to fully evaluate this group, team sources told ESPN, but so many early-season injuries prevented an honest look.
The closest the Lakers have come to that evaluation came in January, when they went 5-5 and beat some good teams in the Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks, but also lost to the Memphis Grizzlies and Brooklyn Nets.
With only 14 roster spots filled, L.A. could be busy on the buyout market to address one specific need — a big body or a shooter, for example — and hope the team has better health in the back half of the season to build continuity and momentum.
This strategy could also pay off in the summer, when L.A. could look to land a big name via trade.
The Lakers currently have only one future first-round pick available to trade, but starting on the day of the NBA draft, they’ll have three: 2031, 2029 and either 2024 or 2025, depending on whether New Orleans chooses to use the 2024 pick it previously received from L.A. or defers it to the next draft.
The Lakers have discussed internally the possibility of packaging three picks, along with players they already have on their books, to pursue a bona fide star, such as Donovan Mitchell of the Cleveland Cavaliers or Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks, team sources told ESPN.
This summer could also call for a bigger pivot if there is a playoff letdown. Would James opt out of his contract for 2024-25 and look elsewhere? If so, would the Lakers need to preserve that extra draft pick to help reinvent everything in a post-James L.A.?
Unlike James’ final season in Cleveland in 2017-18, when the Cavaliers made clear that any trade involving their lottery-projected 2018 first-round pick would be contingent on James’ commitment to stay with the franchise, the Lakers have not preemptively spoken to James’ representatives about the star’s future plans, a source familiar with the situation told ESPN.
Option 2: Shake it up
As Ham acknowledged, the reason this Lakers team is considered formidable is that James and Davis are healthy and have consistently played at a high level.
You can’t say the same for the players around them.
Even though the three-star system didn’t fit with Russell Westbrook flanking those two, could there be another top-tier talent worth pursuing?
Zach LaVine of the Chicago Bulls is not considered an option at this point, team and league sources told ESPN. The reasons are varied: With injuries already costing him 18 games this season, his production failing to translate to team success in Chicago and nearly $90 million guaranteed to him in the next two years — with an additional $49 million player option for 2026-27 — there would be too much risk involved for L.A.
Dejounte Murray remains in the conversation, though. The Hawks’ 27-year-old combo guard is posting career highs in points (21.1), shooting percentage (47.1%) and 3-point percentage (38.2%), along with 4.9 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.4 steals per game.
With Murray making $18.2 million this season, L.A. could save luxury tax money by acquiring him in a two-for-one trade. And should the Lakers get fully healthy, a two-for-one deal would be prudent beyond cap implications. They built their team with depth in mind to endure the 82-game season.
However, as roles get further defined and it becomes clear who is out of the rotation, multiple players can be included to either match salary or possibly recoup draft capital. That was the case when L.A. parted with Thomas Bryant and Patrick Beverley as part of a four-team trade in February 2023 and got back two second-round picks from the Clippers.
But at what cost? The Hawks recently inquired about Austin Reaves, team and league sources told ESPN, but L.A. has no desire to move the popular homegrown talent.
As much as Murray would bring to the table, infusing speed and playmaking to a Lakers team lacking both, would he be enough to part with some combination of D’Angelo Russell, Hachimura, a future first-round pick, Reaves or other young players?
The Lakers are also aware that a team’s outlook can change in a matter of weeks. Just look at how sinusoidal their own season has been. Other big names could very well become available as the calendar turns from January to February.
Option 3: Split the difference
One player and role missing from the team virtually all season is backup point guard. L.A. has lamented its roster lacking speed, consistent paint penetration and second-unit organization, team sources told ESPN, without Gabe Vincent, who has been out because of a left knee injury. Two players who have been discussed internally to fit that spot are Collin Sexton of the Utah Jazz and Tyus Jones of the Wizards, sources told ESPN.
The Toronto Raptors have two players on their roster the Lakers have interest in as well, sources said: Dennis Schroder and Bruce Brown. Schroder was L.A.’s backup point guard last season before signing with Toronto for the full midlevel exception in the summer.
With the Raptors already completing a trade with the New York Knicks to acquire two ball-dominant players in RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley, Schroder could become expendable. And Brown was the Lakers’ top target with their midlevel exception in the offseason, team sources told ESPN, but L.A. got priced out, with the Indiana Pacers offering Brown a two-year, $45 million contract.
The Lakers have also considered dealing for players who could address specific needs in a potential playoff matchup, such as Andre Drummond of the Bulls, in anticipation of a postseason rematch with the Denver Nuggets and their big front line of Nikola Jokic and Aaron Gordon, sources said. Dorian Finney-Smith of the Brooklyn Nets is a big wing L.A. could target for a playoff series with the Clippers to try to neutralize Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Another player with similar size as Finney-Smith and an even more polished offensive game is Miles Bridges of the Charlotte Hornets, but it is unlikely L.A. would pursue a trade for him, sources told ESPN, because he would not retain his Bird rights, meaning the Lakers would be getting Bridges for only the rest of 2023-24 because he would likely find more lucrative offers in free agency than L.A. would be able to offer.
Perhaps the biggest question in which the Lakers will have to find the answer is what to do with Russell.
He has been phenomenal since returning to the starting lineup, averaging 27.2 points in his past five games. And he’s on a value contract, making $17.3 million this season with an $18.7 million player option for next season.
However, he is also the same player who was benched in the conference finals last season, and the Lakers got him to waive the implied no-trade clause his contract included when they re-signed him last summer — not something you push for as an organization if you have the utmost confidence you’ll want to keep the player through the deadline.
In a one-for-one deal involving Russell, the Lakers doubt they’ll be able to find any player to fully complement James and Davis the way Russell’s floor spacing and court awareness on offense does, team sources told ESPN.
It will become clear soon enough whether Russell’s improved play of late will help his chances of staying on the roster, or whether this hot streak is merely upping his trade value.
«I have no control of what the front office does, but we can’t worry about that in a locker room,» Davis said Sunday. «We focus on what we have right here and try to get wins and try to win with what we have. … Once you start listening to all the rumors and the outside noise, it can cause some, I don’t want to say ‘division’ in the locker room, but it gets in players’ heads who are in those rumors and just the uncertainty of what’s going to happen.
«The best thing you can do is just not even worry about it and just play, and I think that’s what we’re trying to do right now.»