The Lakers are back in the star-chasing business. After trading Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. for the expiring contracts of Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye and the Cavs’ 2018 first-round pick on Thursday, they can now clear enough salary cap space for two max contracts this summer. Those will almost certainly be offered to the team’s two likeliest targets: LeBron James and Paul George. That’s been Plan A ever since Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka took over in Los Angeles. What’s interesting is that over the past year, the Lakers have also set up a viable Plan B: an intriguing young core that can insulate the team from what might not happen in free agency.
Thomas could end up being the least important piece they acquired Thursday. He’ll be a free agent at the end of the season and he hasn’t looked anything like the player he was in Boston since coming back from a devastating hip injury. He will have time to rebuild his value in Los Angeles over the next few months, but the Lakers don’t need an older point guard who wants a lot of money, dominates the ball, and has to be protected on defense. Thomas doesn’t fit with the young and versatile roster they currently have, and he wouldn’t help lure LeBron either, given how things ended in Cleveland.
The best part about the trade for Los Angeles is that it was able to clear long-term salary while adding a first-round pick instead of subtracting one. Most of the pre-deadline rumors the Lakers were involved in had them including future assets to unload Clarkson’s contract. The deal they made allows them to clear the runway for LeBron and George without sacrificing their ability to make other moves. The Cavs pick will likely end up somewhere in the 20s, but the Lakers’ new front office has shown a knack for finding talent late in the draft. Both Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart, the no. 27 and 30 picks in last year’s draft, look like steals.
While most of the conversation around the Lakers this season has revolved around the summer of 2018 and the Ball family drama, their young players have quietly taken a step forward. Los Angeles has a 12-4 record over the last month, and it’s been playing an exciting brand of basketball that bodes well for its future. Lonzo has missed most of that time with an MCL injury, but even he had started to turn the corner before getting hurt. The Lakers’ young pieces fit well together.
Ingram, the no. 2 overall pick in the 2016 draft, is coming along nicely in his second season in the NBA. His numbers have skyrocketed across the board from his up-and-down rookie campaign: He is averaging 15.9 points (on 45.8 percent shooting), 5.3 rebounds, and 3.7 assists a game. At 6-foot-9 and 190 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Ingram has freakish physical dimensions for a wing, and he towers over almost everyone he faces on a nightly basis. He just turned 20 in September, so he’s younger than rookies like Josh Jackson. He’s only going to get better as he fills out his frame.
Ingram has shown even more flashes over the past week. Lakers head coach Luke Walton cycled through several lineups in Lonzo’s absence, and he seems to have found something by moving Ingram to point guard and inserting Hart into the starting lineup. Ingram is not an elite athlete, but he’s long enough to stay in front of much smaller guards on defense and he can shoot over them like they aren’t even there. He has a great feel for the game for a younger player and the ability to pick apart a defense off the dribble. Ingram has legitimate point-forward ability:
Hart has been just as good in a bigger role. In 13 games as a starter this season, he is averaging 11.6 points (on 49.6 percent shooting), 6.5 rebounds, and 2.1 assists a game. At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, the 22-year-old already has an NBA-ready body, and he was prepared to contribute immediately after four seasons at Villanova. Hart checks every box for a 3-and-D wing. He spaces the floor (he’s shooting 38.7 percent from 3 on 2.5 attempts per game), slides among all three perimeter positions on defense, and makes good decisions with the ball (he is averaging twice as many assists as turnovers). Thomas will take his spot in the starting lineup for now while Lonzo recovers from his MCL injury, but Hart looks like a long-term building block on the wing.
Lonzo, Hart, and Ingram could form an interchangeable perimeter unit on both sides of the ball. Lonzo struggled under a harsh spotlight in his first few months in the NBA, but it’s too soon to give up on him. His 3-point shot is the key to his ability to succeed at this level, and it’s taken him time to get comfortable with it. While he may not be a 41.2 percent 3-point shooter like he was in college, he wasn’t going to keep shooting 24.5 percent from 3 like he did in his first 20 games with the Lakers, either. He has shot 36.1 percent from 3 over his last 15 games, opening up the rest of his game.
What makes Lonzo unusual is his ability to impact the game without taking a lot of shots. He does many different things to help his team win, and he’s averaging 10.2 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 7.1 assists a game as a rookie. Lonzo is a gifted passer who can create tempo by grabbing defensive boards and pushing the pace, and he facilitates ball movement without needing a ton of plays run for him. His size (6-foot-6 and 190 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan) has also made him surprisingly effective on defense for a young player. Los Angeles can mix and match Lonzo’s, Hart’s, and Ingram’s assignments on defense and then run the free-flowing “everybody eats” offense that has made Washington so effective with John Wall out.
Kuzma has not been starting over the last month, but he is still the Lakers’ power forward of the future. The rookie sensation has been one of the most impressive players from last year’s draft, averaging 15.7 points a game while shooting 36.1 percent from 3 on 5.2 attempts. He is a 6-foot-9 walking mismatch who can also spread the floor. Kuzma can take bigger defenders off the dribble and score over the top of smaller ones. He and Ingram could develop into a devastating offensive tag team at the forward positions. While he still has a long way to go on defense, he has the athletic ability to be at least passable on that end of the floor.
Julius Randle is the one young player in Los Angeles whose future is still unclear. While his inability to space the floor and protect the rim makes it difficult to fit him in a starting lineup, he would be a fantastic sixth man. Randle dominated second-unit big men when he was in that role earlier in the season, and he can create offense for others when he’s double-teamed. Given how the market is looking at the moment, the Lakers probably won’t have to commit to him long-term. L.A. will need to waive his qualifying offer this offseason to clear cap room, but he has shown enough this season to be worth bringing back if the team strikes out in free agency.
Put it all together and the Lakers have a well-rounded five-man core with a lot of room to grow. Ingram and Kuzma have the chance to be primary offensive options, while Ball and Hart should become elite role players in time and Randle could develop into a perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate. The only thing they are missing is a shot-blocking big man at center. They can roll the dice on an athletic 7-footer like Mitchell Robinson or Brandon McCoy with Cleveland’s pick or take a chance on someone like Nerlens Noel in free agency. Brook Lopez and Frye are good placeholders at the position in the interim: Their ability to open up the floor as stretch 5s will give everyone else more driving lanes to attack the rim.
All of this speculation may be for nothing. LeBron and George might decide to team up in Los Angeles this summer, and the franchise could sell off most of its youth movement in an attempt to win now. LeBron has not shown much interest in playing with young players over the course of his career, and he’s unlikely to show any more patience now that he’s a 33-year-old with more than 50,000 regular-season and playoff minutes on his body. The nice thing about what the Lakers have done is they will still be in a good position to strike in free agency in 2019 if LeBron doesn’t come. They may be better off if he doesn’t.
LeBron and George by themselves wouldn’t be enough to knock off Golden State, and it will be hard for Los Angeles to put together an adequate supporting cast around them. The Lakers could count on either veterans getting paid near the minimum or young players still figuring out who they are in the NBA. LeBron is not on the same timetable as the core L.A. has assembled. Randle is 23, Kuzma and Hart are 22, and Ingram and Lonzo are 20. They will need years of grooming and development before they are ready to compete against elite teams in the playoffs. They will be entering their primes just as LeBron is leaving his. The plan should be to surround their youth with younger stars.
It doesn’t matter what stars will be available in future summers, whether it’s Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard in 2019 or players we aren’t even talking about yet. Stars want to play in Los Angeles, but not until there is a team promising enough to contend. Cap space doesn’t attract free agents. Winning games does. The Rockets didn’t have any space this summer, but Chris Paul still wanted to play for them. Once they received his commitment, they were able to work out a trade to acquire him.
The one thing the Lakers couldn’t do while chasing LeBron was hamstring the rest of their team in the process. The most impressive part about the moves they have made over the past year isn’t that they are now in position to offer him and a costar max salaries. It’s that they have hope for the future, even if he says no. The Lakers will look a lot more appealing to free agents in 2019 and 2020 than they will in 2018. They are offering a blank slate now. They can offer a chance to be part of a team on the rise a year from now. Plan A looks better now, but Plan B may have more upside.