Los Angeles is 23-23 with less than two weeks until the Feb. 8 trade deadline and faces a daunting six-game Grammys-induced trip ahead. Will they make a move before the deadline? Is D’Angelo Russell still on the table after his recent play? What about Austin Reaves? How secure is Darvin Ham’s job?
It has been a minute, so I wanted to do a Q&A to answer a lot of the questions I’ve been getting lately. Here’s Part 1 of two, in which I’ll cover the Lakers’ interest in Atlanta’s Dejounte Murray, Russell’s value, Ham’s future, why Reaves remains close to untouchable and more. Part 2 will drop next week.
Are the Lakers really trading DLo for Murray? — @ADHDGoat
The Lakers have already tried to trade Russell for Murray. The two sides were close on a potential deal about two weeks ago, as I reported last week. Talks stalled, but are expected to resume ahead of the deadline. Murray remains the Lakers’ top priority on the trade market, according to multiple team and league sources not authorized to speak publicly.
The Lakers believe Murray would provide similar offensive production to Russell, with obvious downgrades in 3-point shooting volume and playmaking. But Murray is the superior defender, athlete and penetrator, all qualities the Lakers need more of in their rotation. Like Russell, Murray has taken a step forward in recent weeks, nailing two game-winners and averaging 24.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 0.8 steals in his past 13 games. Plus, with approximately four years and $114 million left on his extension, he’s secured for multiple seasons at a reasonable cost given his pedigree and production.
The only realistic way for the Lakers to acquire Murray would involve them sending out Russell (or Reaves, technically, but they don’t want to trade him, as I’ve previously reported and will lay out again below). It wouldn’t make sense to trade, say, Rui Hachimura for Murray, as that would create too large of a hole in the frontcourt unless the Lakers execute a separate trade for a frontcourt player.
The latest holdup has been the Hawks asking for Reaves instead of Russell, which is a nonstarter for the Lakers, and then wanting Russell re-routed to a third team if he remains in the trade. In the event the Lakers acquire Murray, Russell will almost certainly be included. That’s where talks stand as of now.
Has DLO’s recent play affected his trade value? — @burner_literal
Yes, at least as far as the Lakers are concerned. Russell’s recent play has certainly made their decision harder. He’s leading the team in points (27.4) and is second in assists (6.6) since re-entering the starting lineup on Jan. 13. This is not only his best stretch of the season, but undoubtedly the best stretch of either of his Lakers tenures and one of the best of his career.
However, it has not changed the two biggest obstacles to retaining Russell past the deadline. First, he and Reaves have a level of overlapping strengths and weaknesses that make it difficult to keep them together long term. Second, Russell’s current contract creates something of a lose-lose proposition for the Lakers.
If the Lakers have to move on from one of their lead guards, Russell makes more sense, even with him outplaying Reaves for portions of the season (the beginning, and then more recently). There’s a reason why every team asks for Reaves first: He has more leaguewide value. That perception extends to the Lakers, too, who ultimately value Reaves over Russell. Russell’s heater hasn’t changed that reality, according to team sources.
The second point requires some unpacking. Russell has an $18.7 million player option for next season. That’s a reasonable figure, but it also creates a dilemma. If Russell regresses, he’d likely exercise his player option. If he sustains or even improves his performance, he’ll likely opt out, forcing the Lakers to pay him more money or risk losing him for nothing. A scenario in which he opts in and both sides are happy projects as wishful thinking.
The Russell contract was essentially signed to be traded. That’s why he waived the de facto no-trade clause usually entitled to players on one-year contracts. It’s also why he got a player option on the second season. The Lakers don’t have to trade him, and they might not. But if they do, it’s largely because that’s been the plan since last summer.
Odds D’Angelo Russell is a Laker on Feb. 9? — @ECreates88
I’d put it at around 40 percent, which is higher than I would have as recently as a few weeks ago. I think it’s more likely than not he’s traded by the deadline, but it’s become more of a 50-50 proposition given the rising threshold for the Lakers to move him.
The Lakers view trades in which they move Russell for players like Portland’s Malcolm Brogdon, Washington’s Tyus Jones or Brooklyn’s Spencer Dinwiddie as lateral moves at best, and most likely downgrades, according to team sources. Murray is an exception, as previously stated. The Lakers could also try to plug a couple of holes, taking back two players in a deal (like a point guard and wing) in which they send out Russell. But if the Lakers and Hawks don’t resume talks, or Murray is dealt elsewhere, the odds of Russell remaining a Laker nudge closer to 50/50.
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Are the Lakers still keeping Austin Reaves untouchable in trade talks?—@mindsetofbron
In short, yes. But the longer answer is more nuanced. As I outlined last week, Reaves isn’t entirely untouchable. There are players the Lakers would include him in deals to acquire. If they could add a bona fide third star to complement James and Davis – Utah All-Star Lauri Markannen, for example – or multiple high-level starters in a bigger trade, they would consider moving Reaves.
Regardless of your opinion of Reaves, he’s outperforming his $12 million salary this season, and the Lakers have him under contract for at least two more seasons for a total of $27 million. He’s on one of the best role-player contracts in the league. The Lakers aren’t going to give him up unless they’re significantly upgrading their roster, with all of the current deals falling short in that regard.
In order, I’d rank it: Russell, Hachimura, Prince, Reddish and Reaves.
Russell is obvious. Hachimura is another mid-sized salary that could be moved, though he remains a polarizing player across the league. There are some who are skeptical of his contract — he’s making $15.7 million and has two years, $35.3 million left on his deal — and his hot-shooting playoff performance. Last season’s Western Conference finals run was the best stretch of Hachimura’s career. He’s shown some flashes of being that player this season, but due to a combination of injuries and role fluctuation, he hasn’t consistently been the player he was in April and May.
Prince ($4.5 million) and Reddish ($2.2 million) aren’t making enough money to the centerpieces of a deal, but it’s possible the Lakers include them in a trade for salary-matching purposes. Since Prince is the better player, on an expiring contract and making slightly more money than Reddish, he’s the more likely player to be valued by another team. If the Lakers are moving a minimum contract, Jaxson Hayes would be their preferred throw-in.
Are the Lakers looking at landing both Murray and (Bruce) Brown? —@WITNESSKJ
Yes, but it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible given their limited trade assets. They don’t have enough draft capital, in particular, to land both unless Atlanta or Toronto is especially high on Max Christie or Jalen Hood-Schifino and views one of those players as similar to acquiring a draft pick.
Murray and Brown are the Lakers’ top two trade targets at this moment, according to team and league sources. I think those moves, which add a more athletic and defensive-minded scoring guard and another wing that’s an upgrade over the Prince/Hachimura/Vanderbilt trio, are the types of trades that truly elevate the Lakers’ postseason ceiling and give them a clearer starting and closing lineup.
There are some within the Lakers who believe the team needs to make two moves, not one. I lean more in that direction as well. Murray and Brown is on the ambitious end of potential outcomes. I think looping in one of the Brooklyn wings (Dorian Finney-Smith or Royce O’Neale) is more realistic.
Why are the Lakers prioritizing guard targets when wing play seems to be the more glaring weakness? — @_otbj
This is a great question, because I don’t really understand it myself. To me, a better 3-and-D wing who can replace Prince in the starting lineup and provide the proper blend of shooting, defense and rebounding is the ideal trade target. Those players are hard to find and expensive, but there are some — Brown, Finney-Smith and O’Neale, for example — that are attainable and close to checking all three boxes.
Putting myself in the Lakers’ shoes, one argument you can make is if they’re trading Russell — which they would be in most deals of consequence — they’d need to replace his scoring and playmaking in the backcourt. Reaves hasn’t taken the expected leap as an on-ball playmaker that the team might’ve hoped for by this point this season, though he’s been better than some give him credit for being. Reaves’ “superpower” — a term Russell has been using to describe himself and his teammates lately — is his ability to self-create out of pick-and-rolls and isolations.
Therefore, trading Russell without replacing him creates a ballhandling and playmaking hole in your rotation. The Lakers would need another point guard in their rotation — even if it’s merely Brogdon or Jones — at least until Gabe Vincent returns, which remains uncertain. According to team and league sources, Kyle Lowry, who could be available if he’s bought out by Charlotte after being traded there from Miami this week, is one name to watch for the Lakers.
To your point, though, I think the Lakers need to upgrade the Prince/Hachimura/Vanderbilt/Reddish/Christie spot of the rotation to have a real chance against the league’s elite in a seven-game series. Each one of those players comes with at least one notable flaw when playing small forward.
Why are we not using the lineups that got us to the Western Conference finals last year? Why isn’t Rui getting more minutes, especially over Prince? — @Pg_era24
It’s a good question that many people have been wondering.
On the surface, Vanderbilt is a more natural fit alongside Reaves and Russell, helping cover for them defensively and on the defensive glass with his size, length, athleticism and energy. He’s a notably better defender and rebounder than Prince, who is average-to-slightly-above-average in the first category and far-below-average in the second.
Before Thursday’s game, Ham was asked why he hadn’t played last season’s starting lineup more often, and whether its shortcomings in the playoffs had anything to do with the decision.
“Not really, man. I think it’s just the way things have shaken out,” Ham said. “Taurean has been one of our most durable guys. And one of our better 3-point shooters. With LeBron and AD playing the brand of basketball that they play, even this morning, we showed a clip of AD playmaking from the post, and he had three guys around him. And so as much spacing and shooting you can put around them, the better.
“But having said that, it was unfortunate that Vando had to miss the time he missed at the outset of the season. And it’s been a whole entire process getting him back healthy. And now getting him back in the game shape. … Some of the plays he’s making in the passing lanes and deflections, switching on different perimeter threats, interior threats. He’s rounded back into form. So you never know, you just got to take things day by day. At some point, it’s good to know though, that we have that option that we should want to push that button.”
The Lakers were plus-nine in the two minutes the Russell-Reaves-Vanderbilt-James-Davis lineup played against the Bulls. For the season, the grouping has only played 11 minutes together, with the Lakers outscoring their opponents by nine points (meaning the group had an even scoring margin in its previous nine minutes entering Thursday’s contest). That lineup should play more, if only to determine if it can recreate its success from last season.
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Do you think there is an under-the-radar deal the Lakers might make? Maybe something nobody is really talking about? — @shel9x
Yes, I think that’s within the realm of possibility, if not likely. Some of the names they’ve been linked to and strongly pursued in the past — Myles Turner, Buddy Hield, Bojan Bogdanović and Kyrie Irving, to name a few — didn’t end up panning out for various reasons.
At the same time, there was noise surrounding the Russell Westbrook trade weeks before that move, with Utah as a known suitor and the deal likely featuring a third team. The only surprise was Minnesota being that third team and Russell going back to the Lakers.
Sometimes, the smoke is just smoke. Sometimes, there is actually fire. We’ll see how much of the chatter around the Lakers was real over the next 13 days.
Who has more trade value to teams: Max Christie or Jalen Hood-Schifino? — @twoweekswithpay
My sense is Christie is more valuable because he’s shown he can be a rotation-caliber wing — albeit one who still needs some seasoning — before the age of 21. Other teams are asking for Christie to be included in trade talks, but the Lakers have been reluctant to part with him.
The Lakers still hold hope with Hood-Schifino’s long-term development and he’s been playing well in the G League, but has yet to flash his potential in NBA play. It doesn’t help that the three players drafted directly behind him —Miami’s Jaime Jaquez Jr., Golden State’s Brandin Podziemski and Houston’s Cam Whitmore — have played so well this season. But the Lakers can’t go back and redraft.
The Lakers could use Hood-Schifino’s skill set, in theory, given their clear need for a backup point guard with Vincent out. He’s been more of a project than expected, but some teams could value him as the equivalent of a late first- or early second-round pick.
Two coaches have been fired midseason, one of which has a better record and standing in their conference. So when is Darvin Ham getting the boot? — @Kingjuliuus
My understanding is that Ham will be safe through the rest of the season. There is always a chance things with the Lakers go haywire, as they nearly did at the beginning of January when the team lost four consecutive games with matchups with the LA Clippers, Phoenix Suns, Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks looming. But the Lakers responded well by winning four of their next six games, including victories over the Clippers, Thunder and Mavericks in impressive fashion. Those results quieted the noise around the performance of the coaching staff.
The Lakers know Ham isn’t a finished product. They believe in his ability to continue to grow, as well as his success in his first season and a half. He helped lead the team to the Western Conference finals after their 2-10 start last season and to the In-Season Tournament championship earlier this season. Of course, coaching is a “What have you done for me lately?” job. The Lakers are playing better, but have hardly made a dent in the standings as they’ve basically treaded water. They need a dominant stretch, at some point, to save their season.
The manner in which the season ends will likely determine if the Lakers feel they need to move in a different direction over the summer. Do they miss the Play-In Tournament? Do they miss the playoffs? Do they lose in the first round? Or, do they win a round as a lower seed? Make the conference finals again? Win it all?
Ham has the support of governor Jeanie Buss and vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka. Those are the two most important decision-makers in the organization. Until that changes, he’s the Lakers’ leader for the foreseeable future.
(Top photo of D’Angelo Russell: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)