After crushing losses to a depleted Portland Trail Blazers squad, an impressive Minnesota Timberwolves team and the 14th place Memphis Grizzlies, the Los Angeles Lakers are now eleven games under .500 (11-22). Before the season began, the always-controversial Lavar Ball promised the media the Lakers would win 50-plus games. If the Lakers want to satisfy Lavar’s prediction, they need to win 40 of their last 50 games. Even so, the Western Conference’s current status will necessitate a 50-plus win season. If the Lakers have playoff implications, Magic Johnson, Luke Walton & Co. will need to make moves going forward.
Los Angeles Lakers Potential Mid-Season Moves
End the Kentavious Caldwell-Pope Experiment
Despite early season success, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has struggled to find consistency as of late. The Lakers starting shooting guard for much of the year has had a respectable month of December. He is third on the team scoring-wise (13.3 ppg) and third on the team in minutes played per game (34.2). His downfall, however, is in his shooting percentages. In December, KCP is shooting 35.2% from the field and 29.8% from three-point range. He is also dealing with off-the-court issues stemming from his March arrest for intoxicated driving while he was playing for the Detroit Pistons.
What Went Wrong?
Although KCP’s production could be worse, it is his late-game “heroics” that leave Lakers fans scratching their heads. On December 18th, the Lakers had an opportunity to steal a win from the vulnerable Golden State Warriors. KCP corralled a missed three-point attempt by Kevin Durant with 5.9 seconds to go in the fourth. Instead of using the one timeout the Lakers had left, KCP ran the length of the court, pulled up from three and air-balled the shot to send the game into overtime. His teammates stood still with looks of confusion while he shrugged off the miss. The Lakers went on to lose the game 116-114. The loss is not exclusively on KCP. However, one may wonder why he did not call for a timeout or pass the ball in a crucial situation.
The same situation presented itself December 23rd in a 95-92 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. Out of a timeout with 21 seconds and the Lakers down two, KCP received the ball in the corner. The contested three-pointer clanked off the rim and found the hands of Maurice Harkless. After Harkless made one out of two free throws, the Lakers were down by three with eight seconds to go.
Coach Walton drew up an inbound play that had Ball inbounding the ball with Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle, Josh Hart and oh yes, KCP on the floor. Ball inbounded the ball to KCP and without any hesitation, jacked up a three. The Blazers recovered the miss and preceded to run out the game with a cross-court heave to Shabazz Napier. Yet again, the game ended with another disappointing result.
What the Lakers Can do now
Is it KCP’s fault that Walton trusts him to take critical shots at the end of these close games? Of course not. Is it KCP’s responsibility to capitalize on the opportunities he is given? Well, yeah.
KCP will be in and out of the lineup for the next few weeks as he deals with the repercussions of his probation violation, leaving Jordan Clarkson and Hart as potential suitors for KCP’s minutes. Depending on how they play, it would be best if Clarkson or Hart permanently took over the starting Shooting Guard role. KCP has the ability to go into games as a defensive specialist and give the Lakers valuable minutes off the bench if asked to. KCP’s streaky shooting tendencies make it difficult for him to make a consistent impact when he’s on the court.
KCP possesses some skills that some contending teams would love to put to use. Teams who struggle to find consistency at the 2 and 3 positions would be more than willing to adopt KCP. In return, the Lakers would receive a first-round draft pick along with talented, young assets that could bolster the Lakers’ bench productivity. Caldwell-Pope’s one-year/$17,000,000 does not place a huge financial burden on teams that are interested in his services. With 50 games to go on the season, the Lakers should cash-in on KCP’s potential while it still holds some value.
Limit Brook Lopez & Give His Minutes to Julius Randle
Similarly to KCP, Lopez looked to be poised for a successful year early on. In a three-game stretch in early November, Lopez’s point totals were 27, 34 and 21, respectively. Since that three-game stretch, Lopez is averaging 10.8 PPG on 43.8% shooting, a less-than-stellar 22.7% from three and a -2.3 +/-. He is seventh on the team in total rebounds (4.0) and shoots a respectable 69.4% from the line. Now, Lopez is sidelined for three weeks with an ankle injury.
Lopez struggled to administer any production before his ankle injury. His declining play was displayed in the first half the game he got injured in. Lopez air-balled two straight free throws against the Warriors, which caused the crowd to jeer with displeasure. From there, he struggled from the field in 10 minutes of action.
Drawing more parallels to KCP, Lopez was seen as an impressive acquisition in the summer when he was traded from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in a deal that sent D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to the Nets for Lopez and the #27 pick in 2017 NBA Draft, which was used to pick up Kuzma.
Randle’s Influence on the Lakers
Randle, Lopez’s potential replacement at the five position, might be undersized but possesses a play-making ability that many big men lack. On the year, Randle is averaging 12.5 points on 55.2% from the field, 6.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game. Where Randle’s big play ability makes itself known is in the Player Impact Estimate (PIE). Randle currently leads the team with 12.5 PIE rating, while Lopez is averaging a 9.2 PIE.
The Lakers are currently interested in trading Randle. His position-less role has been a blessing and a curse for the former seventh overall pick out of Kentucky. Randle possesses the athletic ability to grab a defensive board, take the ball down the court and conclude the play with an emphatic, highlight-reel dunk like he does in this play. However, where Randle struggles is against big-bodied centers who use their size to their advantage. Randle’s versatility makes him an intriguing trade prospect for many teams.
What to do With Lopez
Lopez also has trade potential as contending teams need a capable center with an imposing offensive game. The Milwaukee Bucks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards can be interesting destinations for Lopez. His contract also works out in teams’ favor. Lopez is currently in the final year of his 3 year/$63,497,025 contract, leaving little money to be paid for whoever decides to take on his contract. The Lakers should want to get a few valuable pieces from the team they trade Lopez to along with a first-round pick in the upcoming draft.
The only issue with a Lopez trade is the amount of time he has before his contract expires. Should the Lakers not want to bring in any new contracts, a trade will not happen. This move would be more about acquiring a first-round pick and shedding a contract. Also, the Lakers do not have a veteran big man outside of Lopez and Andrew Bogut. Telling by Bogut’s age and injury history, keeping Lopez around might benefit the depth at the five position.
Who Looks Better Statistically?
Randle and Lopez practically average the same amount of minutes this year with 22.4 minutes and 22 minutes, respectively. We begin to see a difference between the two big men when we compare their offensive and defensive ratings. Randle trumps Lopez in both ratings with a 102.1 offensive rating and 103.6 defensive rating. Lopez, with a 100.6 offensive rating and 102.7 defensive rating, produces respectable stats, but Randle has a larger impact on the game altogether.
Embrace the Young Players
Starting from last season, Head Coach Luke Walton inherited a team with budding, young versatile players with unknown positions and potentials, washed up, overrated veterans, and castaway role players. Russell was supposed to be the player that would take the Lakers back to their old days of success. Jim Buss’ decision to sign Mozgov to a 4 year, $64 million deal left the Lakers hopeless. The team had to dispatch Russell if they wanted any chance to sign Paul George or LeBron James in 2018.
The same roster narrative follows the Lakers this season. Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kuzma will be stars in the league one day. Based on their productions in the early part of the season alone, they have earned their stripes. Rookie Hart has also given the Lakers some things to be happy about. Hart averages 4.6 PPG on 41.6 percent and 34.6 shooting percentage from three. He earned himself a spot in the starting five with a 104.5 offensive rating and 106.2 defensive rating.
What are the Lakers Dealing With?
Besides the Lakers’ four young stars, there is little for the Lakers to build on. Luol Deng’s 4 year, $72 million contract haunts the team who have reportedly ‘given up’ on moving him. Bogut is past his prime, but does offer some depth at the five. Ivica Zubac is raw but has some offensive potential. Tyler Ennis is nothing to rave about and is certainly not good enough to be around in the long-term. Corey Brewer is actually pretty good, and his game against Houston proves he deserves more playing time. Alex Caruso, Vander Blue, and Thomas Bryant have all had success in the G-League. This warrants their right to more playing time in the NBA. That brings us to the five players that have the talent or measurables to be stars but have some kinks in their games that disable them from reaching the next levels of their games: Caldwell-Pope, Jordan Clarkson, Lopez, Larry Nance and Randle.
Ball, the Lakers’ second overall pick out of UCLA, already has two triple doubles through 31 games this season. He is averaging 10 points, 7.1 assists and 6.9 rebounds per game as the Lakers’ floor general. Ball’s poor shooting percentages have also picked up recently from 31.5% to 44.2%. The Lakers proved how much they struggle without Ball in their recent loss to the last place Grizzlies. According to Silver Screen & Roll writer Drew Garrison, the Lakers tallied a season-low 14 assists and 95.84 pace, which is nine points slower than their average pace that leads the league.
Ball is third on the team in minutes with 33.9 minutes per game. However, there are times when he goes an entire quarter without stepping foot on the court. Statistically, his play benefits the Lakers whenever he is in the game. Walton can either play Clarkson at shooting guard or decrease Clarkson’s minutes at the point increase Ball’s minutes.
Ingram has the biggest transitions from last year to this year. In his rookie year, Ingram averaged 9.4 points, 4 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. This season tells how much Ingram has improved since his rookie year. Ingram is currently averaging 16.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. Ingram averages 5.5 free throws per game, more than any other Laker. His aggressive play has created a part of his game Lakers fans have never seen before. His new-found aggressiveness has also proven he can play toe-to-toe with the league’s best players. On November 29th during a game against the Warriors, Ingram had the responsibility of guarding Durant. Ingram attacked KD from the get-go. In the overtime loss, Ingram went for 32 points, cementing his position as the Lakers most dangerous weapon.
The best part of the Lakers trade that sent Russell and Mozgov to Brooklyn wasn’t Lopez or the cap space that they cleared by shedding Mozgov’s contract. It was the acquisition of the 27th overall pick, which they used to acquire Kuzma. As soon as he stepped on the court for the Lakers during the Las Vegas Summer League, Lakers fans knew they had a star on their hands. His play has translated to the regular season as well. Kuzma leads the team in points (17.8 ppg), three-point shooting percentage (39.4%) and field goals made (6.7). Along with his team-high totals, Kuzma already has three 30+ point games and nine double-doubles. His stellar play has led him to Western Conference Rookie of the Month in November.
The Lakers’ young talent has enabled the team to compete following the acquisition of an all-star next summer. Unfortunately, the aforementioned five position-less players have yet to play at an all-star level. Lackluster performances leave little to be desired for the remainder of the year. Rather than running an offense through Clarkson, Randle, Caldwell-Pope, Nance or Lopez, the Lakers must ride the coattails of their youngsters and get the ball to the most effective players on the roster, which are Ball, Ingram, and Kuzma.
Going Forward for the Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers next game will be on New Year’s Eve against the Houston Rockets. They ended the Rocket’s 14-game win streak, which has led them to a five game losing streak.