LeBron has left teams before
Would he leave the Lakers?
BY HENRY ABBOTT and DAVID THORPE
The Lakers started the season 2-10 and seemed doomed. Maybe LeBron would simply never reach the Finals again. Since then, they’ve endured all kinds of injuries, and have been without Anthony Davis since mid-December.
But a funny thing has started to happen: They’re playing pretty well lately, having won five in a row thanks to incredible play from LeBron James, but also meaningful contributions from the likes of Thomas Bryant, Dennis Schröder, Russell Westbrook, Austin Reaves, and Wenyen Gabriel. Today, though 12th in the West, they’re also only four games out of fourth, which would come with home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. If Davis can return to the court playing like he did earlier in the season, things could start to get interesting. There’s already a sense of urgency.
Given what LeBron told Sam Amick, he’s clearly eager for something to happen (even though what, exactly, is unclear; he later seemed to backtrack). The Lakers have some valuable future draft picks they could trade to get help now. His teams have a track record of making trades like that. LeBron lives in win-now mode. Surely, his frustration this time around has as much to do with Davis’ lack of durability as it does with the perceived slight he feels from the Lakers sitting on their hands when they could be making upgrades.
There’s a certain way to contend, where you destroy the future for the present. Larry Brown’s career had a lot of that—he got one team after another to go all in, then skipped town after they went bust. It happened with LeBron in Cleveland; the Cavs paid Shaquille O’Neal and Antawn Jamison all that money. Later, they traded good picks for Timofey Mozgov and paid Tristan Thompson a fortune. Those kinds of moves are good for the star player, coach, or GM, but when those people can leave, it can take a while for a team to dig out of that hole.
Before the Lakers can consider making moves to win now—2027 and 2029 first-round picks are their last remaining tradable draft assets of any value—don’t they first have to answer the question, “Can we win now?” Does a 38-year-old LeBron have any chance of winning a championship with these Lakers?
David, you have always liked this roster. I’ll just trust your judgment on that. Even if the trouble isn’t on this roster, it might be in the marketplace; there are just so many other contenders, not all of which have the Lakers’ flaws. I am terrible at odds, but it looks like Vegas thinks the Lakers’ current chances of winning this year’s title are less than two percent. If we’re going to talk about how the team should trade future assets to improve this year’s roster, seems like we need to start by assessing whether they’re already toast.
They had a terrible start, but—before losing to the Nuggets without LeBron—the Lakers had just won five straight without AD! They even beat the Heat without AD or LeBron.
Look, over their past 20 games or so, they’ve corrected their terrible 3-point shooting; Westbrook has gone from waivable player to Sixth Man of the Year candidate; and Schröder has been terrific, competing on defense better than I’ve ever seen from him.
From the standpoint of pure talent, I’ve always been a Schröder fan. Over the past couple weeks, he’s been playing at the speed that first caught my attention as the Thunder’s best scorer back in the 2020 bubble. He’s a very potent one-on-one weapon, with an unbelievably fast surge dribble going right that everyone no knows is coming but no one can stop. Having surge attackers like Schröder and Westbrook make the Lakers’ offense much more potent when you factor in the gravity of their two stars.
Then you add Bryant. LeBron and Bryant have also become incredibly weaponized on their pick-and-rolls. Bryant has 48 dunks already this season, many of them off passes from LeBron following a ball screen—and that’s with AD off the court. So with Davis and his ability to drag his man out with him, now you end up with a big shading towards LeBron following a ball screen and, even for just a moment, a much smaller player trying to help on Bryant, who can catch passes 12 feet off the floor or expertly catch and finish LeBron’s pinpoint pocket passes. LeBron’s master passing skills allow him to find angles most other players can’t even imagine. Of course, in their matchup this week against the Nuggets, LeBron didn’t play, so Bryant’s only dunk was one he created for himself.
When Davis does return, he’ll do most of his scoring from the paint and mid-range, so Bryant’s efficient outside shooting—which the Lakers have yet to utilize—will become far more important. With AD and LeBron both on the court, Bryant should be getting up around five 3s per game (he’s at 1.1 currently). Bryant is also an incredible paint scorer in his own right, so you could have lots of high-low action with him and Davis where either guy can fill the top-of-the-key-area and then dump a pass down to a sealing teammate inside (something Bryant and LeBron have already been doing).
Add Westbrook’s ability to find AD or Bryant on ball screens; those two bigs running pick-and-rolls; and Schröder’s isolation play and 3-point shooting, and suddenly the Lakers look like a top-three offense. Why? Because we haven’t even discussed how AD and LeBron can score on any defense. They have lots of ways to pivot when a defense reacts with three scorers next to them.
Defensively AD is the problem-solver the Lakers need. Bryant is very active overall, but he’s never been a rim protector. Davis is elite in doing just that; he’s been mucking up shots at the rim for his entire career. But Bryant is able to guard the perimeter much better than people might realize. He moves his feet very well (another reason why he’s such a good offensive player). If they’re switching one through four, Bryant is going to have problems guarding smaller players, as LeBron does—but they’ll be driving past those two and into a lurking AD. That dynamic gets the Lakers back to where they were to start the year: a top-10 defense.
The Lakers are far more talented than most people gave them credit for when they started 0-5 and 2-10. Both Schröder and Bryant missed those games due to injury. The Lakers are 15-12 since both returned, and nearly half of those games were played without AD, LeBron, or both.
The trade deadline is soon, so if the front office is going to make a move they’ll have to do it in the next few weeks. But I’d take all of those weeks to get as much insight as possible.
If AD can help the Lakers get into the playoffs with a top-six seed—as he did in the 2020 Orlando bubble—a title run remains possible. In my opinion, it’s unlikely AD returns before the All-Star break. There are even some fears that he won’t return at all this season. But it’s important to remember that this squad is 4-6 without LeBron; 8-8 without Davis; and 7-6 when Bryant starts at center—with two of those seven wins coming without LeBron or Davis.
The Westbrook situation is also intriguing. He takes terrible shots; he racks up turnovers; he makes $47 million. No team is going to give up the guys it would take to help the Lakers more than Westbrook. At the same time, Westbrook is really competing on both ends. You can’t just waive that guy. I don’t trust him in the postseason, but he has a place in this league and on this team.
OK, you’ve convinced me. There’s reason to believe in this year’s roster. Maybe it is worth nicking up the future a little for a player or two now. Who would you target? Who makes sense?
I think they should target an archetype 3-and-D wing who can draw a little attention on offense and happily defend the other team’s best player to give LeBron a break on that end. As much as LeBron typically prefers to play with grizzled veterans, I’d make a deal only for someone who’ll help the Lakers for a while.
Here are some younger players—worthy of a first-round pick—who the Lakers could target:
If the Bulls are willing to start moving older players, Alex Caruso is a no-brainer. He’s elite on defense, and he’s hitting 41 percent of his 3s. Plus, he has already proven to partner well with those stars. Trading Lonnie Walker IV and Damian Jones, plus a future first-rounder gets that deal done, financially speaking. Caruso would figure mightily when the Lakers faced Stephen Curry, Ja Morant, or Devin Booker in the playoffs.
Deni Avdija, shooting just 28 percent from 3, has been a huge disappointment for the Wizards. However, he has a ton of upside and can be an All-NBA defender. Avdija is bigger than Caruso, making him a better matchup for forwards like Kawhi, Paul George, Andrew Wiggins, even Luka Dončić. Just 22, he has years to grow into his talent, something that would make up for the first-round pick it would cost to acquire him.
The McDaniels brothers—Jalen of the Hornets and Jaden of the Wolves—are both very intriguing possibilities. Jaden, 23, is already elite as a wing defender. My guess is, he’s only available if the Wolves’ new owners want to recover some of the first-round picks they lost in the Rudy Gobert deal. At 20-21, and 21st in net rating, the Wolves might consider moving a young player averaging 11 points per game. He’s a good shooter (38 percent from behind the arc), though he takes only three 3s per game. Also 6-10, brother Jalen is a bit older (25) and less of a deep threat, but he’s on a tanking team that could benefit from a future first. Hard to imagine Michael Jordan doesn’t covet those lottery picks in the Lakers’ post-LeBron years.
All four players would immediately improve the league's 20th-best defense. With a healthy AD and one more elite guard/wing defender, the Lakers could be a top-10 defense and a top-five offense. They’d have the ability to finish games with the new guy, Westbrook or Schröder, LeBron, AD, and Bryant—or if the opponent played smaller, they’d replace Bryant with solid two-way talent Austin Reaves or playoff veteran Patrick Beverley, who after a terrible start has hit 46 percent of his 3s from since December 9.
We just had a conversation about LeBron and the Lakers and next month’s trade deadline. It’s been a little amped up, though, knowing what we know about next summer when—under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement—LeBron can be traded.
A recent article by Sean Deveney for Heavy features a few unnamed NBA executives claiming that front offices are gearing up for the possibility 38-year-old LeBron might demand a trade this summer.
I can’t argue with these GMs going through the thought exercise. By this summer, we’ll know a lot more. But if AD’s health makes him unreliable, why wouldn’t LeBron want out of LA?
This opens all kinds of questions, mostly along the lines of: Would LeBron be more likely to win a title if he were on another team?
And would the Lakers actually trade a player who doesn’t just help you win games, but also has an incredible effect on the revenues (selling season tickets, parking, in-arena concessions, local broadcast rights) that matter most to the Buss family?
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