Well, the NBA trade deadline has passed and Anthony Davis is still a Pelican. New Orleans didn’t budge for the Lakers‘ best offer — Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Ivica Zubac, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and two future first-round picks. That’s no bum offer, people. But the Pelicans clearly think it’s an inferior package to the one the Celtics can potentially offer this summer, which would presumably include Jayson Tatum and a couple potential lottery picks, among other ready-made, valuable players like Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and/or Al Horford.
Most people I’ve spoken with around the league agree with the Pelicans: Understanding the risk of waiting on an unknown with a solid offer on the table, Boston’s potential offer looks better, perhaps significantly. So the Lakers miss out. For now. If Boston can’t come through this summer for whatever reason, New Orleans can probably go back to the Lakers, or perhaps deal with the Clippers, who continued putting together quite the trove of draft assets at the deadline. At least that’s what New Orleans is banking on. We’ll see.
In the immediacy, it’s hard for me to attach either a “winner” or a “loser” post-deadline tag to the Lakers. Everything could change this summer if they get another max player and/or end up with Davis anyway — perhaps without having to give up all four of their young core guys if leverage swings back their way. Still, with the information we have right now and no guarantee either of those things will happen, we have to deem the Lakers a deadline loser. Perhaps a really, really big one.
Stripping away all the qualifiers, the bottom line is the Lakers went all in for Davis and came up empty. Same as they came up empty when they could’ve, and probably should’ve, gone harder after Paul George when he was still in Indiana and available for far less than the Lakers just offered for Davis. The Lakers lost that one to greed. They simply assumed George would come to them as a free agent and they could keep their assets on top of it. But George didn’t come. Didn’t even give the Lakers a meeting. Stayed in OKC, where he’s become a legit MVP-level player.
Did the Lakers learn from their mistake? Not really. Perhaps the Spurs never would’ve sent Kawhi Leonard to the Lakers no matter how sweet the deal, but we’ll never know. The Lakers never put their strongest foot forward in those negotiations because, again, they were counting on Kawhi coming to them as a free agent, which he still potentially could. But don’t count on it.
The bottom line is Kawhi is nearly as good as Davis, if he’s not his outright equal, making him worth pretty much the same offer the Lakers just threw at New Orleans. The Lakers could’ve at least put that on the table, and forced San Antonio to cut off its nose to spite its “anyone but the Lakers” face. San Antonio is too smart for that. Nobody will ever convince me that offer doesn’t end with Kawhi and LeBron competing for a championship THIS SEASON in L.A.
Instead, it’s Kawhi and the Raptors in the title hunt.
The list goes on. The Lakers could’ve taken a one-year, low-risk gamble (one that still wouldn’t have tied up their books for the 2019 summer) on DeMarcus Cousins, who would have made the Lakers at least a scary playoff team and could’ve potentially been had for peanuts by NBA standards. Even not knowing how Cousins would come back from his Achilles injury, there was much more reward than risk in that scenario, and instead the Lakers signed Lance Stephenson. Heck, had the Lakers just drafted Jayson Tatum, or even De’Aaron Fox, ahead of Lonzo Ball in 2017, this deal for Davis would already be done. Don’t cry “the draft is just a crapshoot” in the same breath you tout yourself for landing Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma as late first-round steals.
Nobody’s here for the excuses. You can say “hindsight is 20-20” and all that, but the good front offices, they recognize these things before it gets to the point of regret. All the Lakers need to do is look inside their own arena at the Clippers, who brought in Jerry West (when the Lakers didn’t want him back) and are now putting on an asset-management clinic. Rather than getting ahead with superior scouting and shrewd front-office moves, the Lakers, on the other hand, have assumed their name and geography would do the work for them. Sure, it worked in landing LeBron James. That’s a big deal. But in the West, LeBron needs help. Same as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, in the suddenly stout East, need help in Philly.
To that point, the Sixers could’ve greedily clung to their assets and assumed they could just sign Jimmy Butler or Tobias Harris in free agency, but they didn’t. They went and got them. And now they’re a title contender. Meanwhile, the Lakers, who talked so big about patience and a commitment to the development of young players, are left with a jumpy and perhaps outclassed front office, a hot-seat coach, a disenchanted superstar and a potentially very sour team that is suddenly in danger of missing the playoffs.
Can you imagine? LeBron James makes eight straight Finals in the East, and in his first foray through the West, he can’t even make the playoffs? Side note: Can we please get rid of conferences already? Not only has it allowed, for years, an embarrassingly easier path to the Finals, as evidenced by LeBron’s eight straight trips with maybe two or three real tests along the way, but perhaps even worse, even in a supremely improved Eastern Conference at the top, conferences continue to allow for possibilities like the one we’re facing this season: A playoffs WITH Hassan Whiteside and the utterly fall-asleep boring Miami Heat and WITHOUT LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
We hear all the time this is a business.
That is not good business.
Back to the Lakers. Though it feels like a frustrating consolation prize, they did improve their team on the margins, adding two solid shooters in Reggie Bullock from Detroit and Mike Muscala from the Clippers, who’d gotten Muscala from the Sixers. Why the Lakers didn’t prioritize shooting more last summer, when instead they focused on adding multiple “playmakers” like Stephenson and Rajon Rondo, is another conversation. But they’ve addressed the hole to some degree now and it should help them down the stretch.
Will it be enough for the Lakers to get into the playoffs, let alone make any noise? That remains to be seen. After Thursday’s buzzer-beating win over Boston (very impressive after what has gone on this week), the Lakers have to go 19-8 over their final 27 games to reach 47 wins, which still might not be enough to get them into the playoffs. To reach 50 wins and presumably secure something better than the No. 8 seed — which, in all likelihood, would merely net them a first-round death sentence versus the Warriors — the Lakers would have to finish the season on a 22-5 run. Do you really see that happening?
Of the three people in the league to whom I posed this question after Thursday’s deadline passed, two do not see the Lakers making the playoffs this season. That 17-game LeBron absence is just going to be too much to overcome, said one. The other thinks LeBron turning on the late-season jets will be “just enough” to allow the Lakers to squeak in. It’s a modest goal for a team that had designs on becoming a championship contender in a matter of one trade, but it’s where the Lakers are at. And if things don’t go their way in a few months, they might be stuck there for some time.