NBA trade deadline 2022: Why a Los Angeles Lakers roster shake-up is not coming

LeBron James has been here before.

You only have to go back to 2017-18 to find a time when he was playing at a high level but surrounded by a roster that wasn’t working. That Cleveland Cavaliers team went 3-10 in the month following a Christmas Day loss to the Golden State Warriors, laying bare the problems with a roster that was heavy on big names — future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade, former MVP Derrick Rose, all-NBA point guard Isaiah Thomas — and light on cohesion.

When trade deadline day arrived, Cleveland completely reshaped its roster, sending away Wade, Rose, Thomas, Channing FryeJae Crowder and Iman Shumpert in three separate deals. With the new players around him, James would carry Cleveland to its fourth consecutive NBA Finals appearance.

Los Angeles Lakers fans shouldn’t expect history to repeat itself in 2022 — at least, not as it pertains to February. While James is still playing at a high level, posting his highest scoring average since 2009-10, the Lakers don’t have the ability to make a series of sweeping roster-changing trades. More likely than not, the Lakers’ roster is going to look very similar on Feb. 11 to how it does now.

Here are the three reasons why the Lakers are likely going to be stuck at the trade deadline.

Russell Westbrook’s sinking trade value

The Lakers knew the risks when they acquired Westbrook and the $91.3 million remaining on his contract. If adding Westbrook as a third star didn’t work, there wasn’t going to be a mulligan available to the Lakers.

The 2021 offseason marked the third in a row in which Westbrook was traded. In 2019, he was sent from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Houston Rockets for what was labeled as the “toxic” contract of Chris Paul (how wrong we all were). In 2020, the Rockets sent him to the Washington Wizards for the equally difficult-to-move contract of John Wall, who has not played this season as Houston tries to move him again.

However, in the current NBA landscape, those types of unmovable contracts — the only ones for which another Westbrook deal would likely happen — don’t exist.

Taking Westbrook and Wall out of the equation, the top 10 highest-paid players in the NBA are Stephen Curry ($45.8M), James Harden ($44.3M), LeBron James ($41.2M), Kevin Durant ($40.9M), Paul George ($39.3M), Kawhi Leonard ($39.3M), Giannis Antetokounmpo ($39.3M), Damian Lillard ($39.3M), Klay Thompson ($38.0M) and Jimmy Butler ($36.0M). Most of the healthy players on that list are playing at an All-NBA level. None of their teams are looking to deal them at all, much less for a 33-year-old guard having his worst scoring season since 2009-10.

Going further down the salary list, Andrew Wiggins once had a contract seen as a burden, but the 2014 No. 1 pick is now an All-Star starter. Kevin Love has turned into a Sixth Man of the Year candidate in Cleveland, and the $60 million left on his contract is no longer seen as dead money.

Looking around the league, there are also no trades out there that would split up the Westbrook contract into multiple players, similar to what the Wizards did last offseason — unless, of course, a team like the New York Knicks feels that Westbrook can inject life into its lifeless roster.

The 35-point performance in a loss at Charlotte shows that Westbrook can still play at an elite level but only when he does not have to defer. If you want further proof, look at the 2016-17 season, when Westbrook won the MVP award in the Thunder’s first season without Kevin Durant.

Not even a hypothetical Westbrook-for-Wall trade would make sense from the perspective of the Rockets, who would find themselves in the same situation with Westbrook that they’re currently in with Wall. The Lakers would need to entertain attaching multiple draft picks or a player like Talen Horton-Tucker to make that deal, and it’s not clear that swapping the two former All-Star point guards would change the Lakers’ fortunes at all.

Still, any contract is tradable. Just ask Kemba Walker, John Wall and Westbrook himself. A team like Oklahoma City would certainly jump to the front of the line if the Lakers were willing to cut bait with Westbrook as long as an unprotected 2027 first and the right to swap firsts in 2028 were attached.

There could always be that desperate team that has buyer’s remorse on the money it spent in the offseason. Perhaps a team like the Knicks comes in and sees Westbrook as the player they’ve been missing. We saw that in Houston, Washington and, most recently, Los Angeles.

However, the goal for the Lakers is to improve the roster, not simply rid themselves of Westbrook.

The salary construction of the roster

Take a look at the Lakers cap ledger and two things will stand out.

First, the Lakers have $120 million tied up in three players: Westbrook, James and Anthony Davis.

Second, the only players on the roster making more than the minimum are the three stars, Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn, who has yet to play this season. That leaves the Lakers incredibly limited in terms of the kinds of trades they can make.

Los Angeles could package Horton-Tucker and Nunn together in a deal, but the most it can take back in salary in that case is $18.1 million (125% of the combined value of the Horton-Tucker and Nunn contracts). That would be barely enough to trade for someone like Indiana Pacers big man Myles Turner ($18 million) and just short of the necessary matching salary to get Jerami Grant ($20 million) from the Detroit Pistons. In the latter case, the Lakers would need to add one of their minimum-salary players to make the deal work, but even if the Lakers attached an unprotected 2027 first-round pick, they would likely get outbid by another team.

Another option would be moving DeAndre Jordan or Kent Bazemore in a deal similar to the one the Lakers did when they sent Rajon Rondo to Cleveland earlier this season, opening up a roster spot and creating significant luxury tax savings in the process. Neither player is in the rotation at the moment, and the extra roster spot could be used if a helpful player becomes available after postdeadline buyouts are made.

The Lakers do have trade exceptions of $2.8 and $1.7 million to potentially add a low-salary player and fill an open roster spot with, but those exceptions cannot be combined.

The Lakers’ inconsistent play on the court has resulted in questions about Frank Vogel’s job security, but it has also overshadowed the fact that Davis missed nearly a month. At the time of his injury, the Lakers were 16-13 and ranked 10th in defensive efficiency. In the stretch of games that Davis missed, the Lakers were 26th.

Davis is back now, and it’s possible that his return, along with Nunn’s eventual Lakers debut, represent the only big “moves” the Lakers make at the deadline.

A lack of draft assets

The trade to acquire Davis in 2019 accomplished the one goal that the Lakers set out to achieve: win an NBA championship. Now, almost two years later, the Lakers are feeling the negative long-term effects of that trade.

The original deal called for the Lakers to send three first-round picks to the New Orleans Pelicans, one in 2020, one in 2022 and one in either 2024 or 2025. Because the Stepien Rule prevents teams from trading future first-round picks in back-to-back years, the Lakers cannot trade their 2023 pick (one the Pelicans also have swap rights on anyway). Also, because the Pelicans have the right to choose whether they get the Lakers’ pick in 2024 or 2025, L.A. is prevented from trading its 2026 pick.

What the Lakers do have to offer is either a 2027 or 2028 first-round pick, but not both. Teams aren’t allowed to trade picks further than seven years in the future, so the Lakers could add protections to either pick, but cannot let it roll over to 2029.

For example, the Lakers could trade a future first-round pick, but put top-three protection on it in 2027 and 2028. The acquiring team would run the risk of receiving two second-round picks in 2028 if the pick does not convey in either season.

The Lakers could also add language clarifying that the acquiring team would receive its first-rounder two years after the conditions to New Orleans are met. For example, if the Pelicans elect to keep the 2024 first and not defer to 2025, the acquiring team would then receive a 2026 first.

The Lakers are clearly a win-now team, but are they willing to trade a first-round pick for 2027 or 2028, when James will likely be retired and Davis could be on a different team?

One thing to keep in mind is that since James entered the league in 2003, the teams he has played on (Cleveland, Miami and the Lakers) have traded away 15 first-round picks.

Although the Lakers are limited in what they can send as it relates to the first round, they do have seven future second-round picks to work with at this trade deadline: 2023 (their own and Chicago), 2024 (the less favorable of Washington and Memphis), 2025 (their own), 2027 (their own) and 2028 (their own and Washington).

Looking ahead to the offseason

If the Lakers’ roster doesn’t change much in February, it is almost certain to change this summer. Only seven current Lakers — James, Davis, Westbrook, Horton-Tucker, Nunn, Stanley Johnson and Austin Reaves — are under contract for 2022-23.

The bad news is that those players are slated to make a combined $149 million, putting the Lakers over the luxury tax line even before filling out the final eight spots on the roster.

The Lakers will have the $6.2 million taxpayer midlevel exception available. Outside of that, they’ll be looking to add players on the veteran’s minimum for the second consecutive offseason.

Los Angeles cannot afford to swing and miss with the few resources it has. The Lakers will need to build more like this season’s Miami Heat, which signed Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, Omer Yurtseven and Dewayne Dedmon to the veteran minimum this past offseason. The four Heat players are not household names like Trevor Ariza, Dwight Howard and Wayne Ellington, but they perfectly complement the rest of the Heat roster.

The signings of Austin Reaves, Malik Monk and Stanley Johnson prove the Lakers need to focus not on what a player has done in the past, but how each player can help now.

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