<
>

Lakers From The Outside: Assets and liabilities

Elias Stein

This is the third part in a series on how league insiders view the Lakers' rebuild. Read the first part here and second part here.

Through the decades, there's been one route that, more than any other, has helped deliver the biggest stars to the Los Angeles Lakers: trades.

It's how Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol all ended up donning purple and gold. It's also how they acquired the first overall pick in the 1979 draft, which was used to select Magic Johnson, and the first overall pick in 1982, which landed James Worthy.

Developing young talent takes time, takes patience -- something Lakers fans aren't known for having. But a trade can turn around a franchise in an instant.

So it was no surprise to hear Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak mention trades as an avenue to help rebound from the worst chapter in franchise history.

"I do think we do have pieces that we can be in the discussion this season with other teams," Kupchak said in late September. "We didn't have as many pieces a year ago as we did this year, not to say that we'll be any more active than we were a year ago."

But after the worst two-year stretch in franchise history, marquee players aren't forcing their way to the franchise as Wilt, Kareem and Kobe once did. For these Lakers to land a star via trade, it will come down to assets. And according to two dozen NBA insiders -- team executives, scouts, agents -- the Lakers as they stand are considerably lacking in that area.

"They don't really have any," one executive said.

And the ones they do have are unproven young players.

"Basically what the Lakers have right now, at the top of the list is D'Angelo Russell, who has not played in the NBA, and Julius Randle, who has not played in the NBA," one agent said. "Now you've got two picks who have not played in the NBA as your most valuable assets. That's bad."


Every insider with whom ESPN spoke said Russell, the No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft, is the Lakers' clear-cut top asset.

Second-best? Either combo guard Jordan Clarkson, a 2014 second-round pick who was an All-Rookie first team selection last season, or forward Randle, a 2014 lottery pick whose rookie season was cut short by a broken right leg after only 14 minutes of playing time.

But the majority of those polled were not high on the NBA youngsters.

"Clarkson is a nice player, but he doesn't make any money, so you're not going to get anything from him," one executive said. "Randle is completely unproven, so you're not getting anything from him. And you're not going to get better trading those guys."

After those three, insiders say the Lakers' coffers are virtually empty.

"Once you get past them, yeah, [they have] decent players," one agent said, "but nothing [where] you would say, 'These are guys that are going to help a franchise,' especially in the West."

That includes Bryant, one of the few NBA players with a no-trade clause in his contract, and who therefore could nix any trade the Lakers negotiate for him.

"Kobe, I don't think a lot of people would touch him," one agent said. "Maybe if he would put a team over the top, but he would have a limited role I'm sure, too, for whatever team he's going to."

Draft picks -- and the rookie-scale contracts they're bound to -- have become increasingly valuable in today's NBA. Because of the greater financial advantages a player can get from his original team over the other 29 in the league, and restricted free agency's, well, restrictions, virtually all high-level talents opt for second contracts with their original teams. Anthony Davis, Paul George, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard might have been prime Lakers targets in the past, but none ever hit the open market.

And despite the Lakers' large revenue streams, the latest collective bargaining agreement has made it difficult to trade for top-line players by swallowing cumbersome salaries. In fact, with the salary cap expected to skyrocket, players have recently signed shorter, less-onerous contracts, which reduces the likelihood of a team needing to off-load big money.

"The rules have significantly changed the way you can address rebuilding a team," Kupchak said. "It's become clear that draft choices and building through the draft is a big part of it."

Unfortunately, the Lakers' future picks situation is grim.

Unless they land one of the top three picks in next year's draft, the Lakers, thanks to the 2012 trade for Steve Nash, will convey their first-rounder to the Philadelphia 76ers, who acquired its rights at last season's trade deadline. The pick is top-three protected in 2017 as well and unprotected in 2018.

It gets worse. The Lakers also owe a top-five-protected first-rounder to the Orlando Magic, part of the 2012 multi-team trade that brought Howard to L.A. That pick conveys no sooner than two years after the one the Lakers owe the Sixers, meaning the earliest it can now be sent is 2018. If the Lakers keep their next two first-rounders out of Philly's hands by landing a top-three selection in 2016 and 2017, Orlando will instead receive second-round picks from the Lakers in 2017 and 2018.

In total, the Lakers are sure to lose one of their first-round picks over the next three years, and it could be as many as two picks in that span.

One analytics official said their situation is comparable to the Brooklyn Nets, who haven't had the rights to their own first-round pick in two years and might not again until 2019.

"Brooklyn has similar structural advantages in terms of being in New York and having a huge amount of funding, but they've pissed it away with dumb, short-term decision-making," an official said. "The Lakers have kind of done the same for the last two years. The management has to get cleared up, because since the Dwight trade, it has basically been a disaster."


The metrics loved Russell's potential heading into the 2015 draft. The 19-year-old Ohio State point guard ranked first in Kevin Pelton's WARP projections and had the greatest chance among draftees at becoming a superstar according to ESPN's SPM projections. FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO projection system also labels Russell as a "great prospect" and tabs a rookie Derrick Rose as his closet comp.

But SPM also rated him as having the highest bust percentage in his draft class. A poor showing at Las Vegas Summer League, where he shot 37.7 percent, also raised concerns.

"I don't think D'Angelo is an asset value that is common for a No. 2 pick in the draft," one executive said. "I don't think that he is so good that he himself has a super high value."

That's the problem with youth. It's too hard to tell.

And right now, those are the only players the Lakers have with much value to other teams.

"All their assets are potential, which is tough," one scout said.

Several insiders said the Lakers could hope to acquire a star such as Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love or Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins if those players were determined to force a trade elsewhere.

Even then, one analytics official pointed out that it's unlikely to expect any team to dump a disgruntled player at a discount, which is what would have to happen for such a player to come to the Lakers.

"You're not going to be able to package Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson for a good draft pick or a good player," one executive said. "You may be able to trade Jordan Clarkson for a veteran player that may be a little bit more ready to win, but I don't see the asset value of those players, other than D'Angelo."

Said another executive, "I'm not a huge fan [of Randle]. You're not going to get a lottery pick [for him]. I can tell you that."

Said another executive, "I have my concerns about Russell and he didn't help his value in summer league, but he was a guy that around the league was a consensus top-five pick only a few months ago and I think there are a teams around the league that value him very highly."

The Lakers have built dynasties through the art of the deal. But given their current collection of assets, landing a premier player via trade seems unlikely.