Lakers’ trade targets & trading chips!

Why the Lakers should keep Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson and sign just one elite free agent this summer

Lakers’ Trimvirate of D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, and Jordan Clarkson

It’s the nature of the business of professional basketball that D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, and Jordan Clarkson, once projected as a future Lakers’ Big 3, are now on the verge of becoming a trio of traded chips.

Russell, of course, was traded last summer to the Nets as the sweetener to get them to take Timofey Mozgov’s bad contract and it now appears that Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are looking to trade Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson as part of a grand plan to create the cap space to sign two elite free agents this summer, despite Randle and Clarkson both elevating their games to another level and arguably enjoying their best seasons as Lakers.

While Lakers’ fans are notoriously impatient, many are starting to question whether the team should trade Randle and Clarkson, especially since the two have been a big part of the team’s success this season and are among the most improved players on the team. Keeping them, however, would require the Lakers to rethink their grand plan to sign two elite free agents this summer, a move Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka may reluctantly be forced to consider.

It’s no secret the two elite free agent stars Magic wants to sign are LeBron James and Paul George, both of whom have been rumored to have an interest in joining the Lakers. Unfortunately, the latest LeBron rumors now seem to rank LeBron going to the Lakers as a long shot. This uncertainty over which free agents will be available next summer led Magic to acknowledge recently that the Lakers might have to save some cap space until the summer 2019.

But giving up the dream of signing two elite free agents this summer won’t be easy for the Lakers as it is realistically the only way to transform the team into a contender quickly and get around the harsh reality that the Lakers are more than just one superstar away from being an NBA championship contender. Their young, inexperienced roster, no matter how star studded and talented, is going to struggle to attract elite free agents who want to win right now.

So the Lakers’ grand plan was to trade young talent, no matter how painful, to clear cap space to sign two elite free agents who together could elevate a young, inexperienced Lakers team into an actual championship contender. Rethinking that strategy and keeping young talent like Randle and Clarkson instead of trading them for cap space to sign a second elite free agent will take longer to develop but could be better for the Lakers in the long-term.

There are compelling reasons why the Lakers should rethink their grand plan and keep Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson and focus on adding just one elite free agent this summer rather than two. While their record doesn’t show it yet, this season’s version of the Lakers is a far better team than expected with dramatically improved defense, rebounding, and playmaking. Given the time to grow and develop, they have the potential to become a special team.

Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson have been big drivers of this renaissance. Despite being demoted to the bench and having his minutes reduced, Randle has been a revelation as the Laker’s small ball center backing up Brook Lopez. Offensively, he’s having a career year, averaging 12.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.9 assists in 22.6 minutes per game (versus 28.8 last year) while shooting a career high 55.6% from the field, a huge jump from last year’s 48.8%.

But it’s been on the defensive end where Randle has become a difference maker, showing a surprising ability to protect the rim (1.4 blocks per 36 minutes) and switch and defend guards on pick-and-rolls and the perimeter. There’s no question the Lakers played their best with Randle on the floor and there aren’t many players who can impact a game at both ends like he can. At 22-years old, he has ‘Draymond Green’ potential if the Lakers are patient.

Meanwhile, Jordan Clarkson has also taken his game to the next level, averaging 14.9 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game despite seeing his minutes reduced from 29.2 minutes per game to 22.6 minutes per game. Backing up both guard positions, Clarkson has greatly improved his shooting and playmaking and continues to demonstrate elite potential as a sixth man. At 25-years old, he has ‘Lou Williams’ potential if the Lakers are patient.

There’s no question you need superstars to win in the NBA and Lakers’ fans would be thrilled if Magic were able to channel his best LaVar Ball and “speak into existence” his plan to sign two superstars this summer. But would adding LeBron James and Paul George to this young, inexperienced Lakers squad without Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson be enough to compete with the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and Houston Rockets?

I believe the answer is yes but not until the heart of the Lakers’ young roster were able to grow and develop for at least another couple of years, which probably eliminates the Lakers as a likely landing spot for LeBron James or other elite free agents who want to win now. Better to focus on younger free agents like Paul George, who wants to play for his home town team, or DeMarcus Cousins, who’s been rumored to want to play for the Lakers.

The next eight weeks before the February 8, 2018 trade deadline are key and will give us first hints of which direction the Lakers’ front office is going to go. Right now the Lakers don’t actually have the cap space they would need to sign a second elite free agent. They would need to make moves to trade or extend, waive, and cut Luol Deng, allow Julius Randle to become a free agent, and trade Jordan Clarkson without taking back any long-term salary.

Making moves to clear cap space midseason is a huge gamble because there’s no guarantee the Lakers would be able to sign two max contract free agents with the cap space. It’s possible they could give Randle and Clarkson away for cap space but still strike out in free agency because the players they coveted weren’t available or signed elsewhere. Even trading Randle and Clarkson for Paul George midseason doesn’t guarantee landing a second elite free agent.

The first half of this season has given the NBA glaring examples of the benefits of being patient and costs of being impatient with talented but mercurial young players. The OKC Thunder have to be second guessing trading Victor Oladipo, who has single handedly resurrected the Indiana Pacers, while the Orlando Magic have to be thanking their lucky stars they didn’t trade Aaron Gordon, who is also turning in an All-Star season.

Hopefully, the Lakers are starting to realize that Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson are talented but mercurial young players who could be next year’s versions of Victor Oladipo or Aaron Gordon. The last thing any NBA general manager wants to see is players he traded away turning into all-stars and coming back to haunt the team for years. If Randle and Clarkson continue to perform over the next eight weeks, the Lakers need to rethink trading them.

Deciding to keep Randle and Clarkson instead of signing a second superstar could cause Lakers’ coach Luke Walton to adjust his lineups, which could lead Randle and Clarkson receiving more minutes at the expense of Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, both of whom have large expiring contracts. The truth is Randle and Clarkson have outplayed the more experience and expensive Lopez and Caldwell-Pope and deserve larger minutes and roles.

I think Lakers’ fans as a whole would be supportive of the Lakers remaining patient and not trading away young talent for a second elite free agent. They have watched Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson grow and develop from raw rookies to impact young players and I don’t think they’re ready to cast them aside. They saw promising glimpses of how good this young team, including Randle and Clarkson, could become during their recent 4-game road trip.

The Lakers’ front office needs to rethink their grand plan of signing two elite free agents next summer and instead consider keeping Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson and signing just one max contract free agent this summer. The extra time required and patience will be rewarded with a better, more sustainable championship caliber team than pairing LeBron James and Paul George with a young, inexperienced roster not ready to win consistently.