The Upside of Lakers’ Mega Trade!

How the trade with the Cavs will accelerate the development and increase the potential of the Lakers next superteam

Sometimes the greatest moves a team can make are moves to position themselves for future mega moves. The Lakers’ blockbuster trade of Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye, and the Cavs’ 2018 first round pick falls in that category.

The trade not only provided the Lakers with a major roster upgrade in the form of two elite 3-point shooters in Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye but also gave them a guaranteed pathway to create the cap space to sign two max-contract free agents this or next summer plus a first round draft pick to replace the one the Lakers gave the Phoenix Suns in the Steve Nash trade. The cap space, draft pick, and roster upgrade from this trade have the Lakers perfectly positioned to make the mega moves to build their next superteam.

Like the trade of Gail Goodrich to the then New Orleans Jazz for the draft pick that become Magic Johnson or the trade of Don Ford to the Cleveland Cavaliers for the draft pick that became James Worthy, this trade was not an end in and of itself but rather a positioning move to expand their options and give the Lakers maximum team building flexibility to finish their rebuild. It was a trade to give the Lakers the cap space and draft picks they needed to be able to match the trading chips of teams like Danny Ainge’s Boston Celtics.

The trade finally gives the Lakers a clear pathway out of the salary cap and draft pick hell that the previous front office regime had left when departing. After a couple of inspired trades and a killer draft, the Lakers finally have a full cupboard of trading chips, including talented young players, cap space for two max-contract players, and a full slate of first round draft picks to ensure a seat at the table when the next NBA superstar becomes available.

This trade was all about positioning the Lakers to be in the discussion when the next superstar comes on the market, whether it’s Paul George or LeBron James in free agency this summer or Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, or Anthony Davis on the trading block next summer. This trade gives the Lakers the trade assets they need so the next time a superstar like Kyrie Irving comes on the market, they’ll be able to make a competitive offer to acquire him.

The Clarkson/Nance trade also has an immediate positive impact on the Lakers’ need to show elite free agents the team is just a couple of superstars away from competing for a championship. Right now the young Lakers have been playing their best basketball of the season, winning 4 in a row and 12 of their last 16 before the trade. Adding Thomas and Frye, both elite 3-point shooters, represented a desperately needed upgrade in outside shooting.

While the Lakers would have made the Cavs trade regardless of whose expiring contracts they received, being able to get Isaiah Thomas as part of the deal is wild card the Lakers hope to cash in short term with a playoff run and possibly long term as a part of their new superteam. If IT can pass the test for the rest of the season, look for the Lakers to find a way to keep him long term. Fully healthy, Isaiah has proven he is an elite NBA offensive player.

Hopefully, the new additions will help the Lakers win 2 out of every 3 games for the remainder of the season. With 27 games left and a 23–32 record, the Lakers need to win 18 of the 27 remaining games to finish 41–41, which would give them a remote chance to make the playoffs. That’s the kind of closing performance they need to convince prospective free agents that their signing is all it would take for the Lakers to be a championship contender.

Knowing for sure they now have cap space to sign two max-contract free agents resets teams’ expectations of the upside of signing with the Lakers. Instead of an all-or-nothing push to sign Paul George and LeBron James this summer, the Lakers may well be focused on bigger and better fish in free agency the summer of 2019 or even 2020, when they will still potentially have more than a half dozen talented young players on rookie contracts.

DeMarcus Cousins injury, Paul George’s trade, and LeBron James’ trials have forced Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka to adjust their plans to the reality that superstars rarely come on the market and even more rarely as free agents. I have no doubt they will go hard after Paul George this summer and I believe they will be successful. Just too many reasons for Paul to want to come home and play for the Lakers, especially knowing more help will be on the way.

Once PG is signed, sealed, and delivered, the Lakers will have a multiverse of options and paths to move forward depending on events and opportunities. They might sign LeBron James or they might save the cap space for a second superstar for summer of 2019 and sign Julius Randle and Isaiah Thomas and a few other second tier players to short term deals. Odds are high that will be Plan B for the Lakers if LeBron James decides not to sign with the Lakers.

Nobody knows what’s going to happen in the NBA over the next two years other than the Golden State Warriors are likely to repeat as NBA champions. But over the next two and half years, there will be several opportunities for teams to trade for a superstar if they have the right assets. That’s what Danny Ainge has been stockpiling assets for and what the Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have been doing with Russell/Mozgov and Clarkson/Nance trades.

Maybe it will be the Warriors needing to move Klay Thompson or Draymond Green for tax reasons or the Pelicans or Bucks needing to move Anthony Davis or Giannis Antetokounmpo to avoid losing them for nothing in free agency. Or maybe a fire sale for a disgruntled John Wall or Kawhi Leonard. One thing is for sure. By making the Clarkson/Nance trade, the Lakers put themselves in position to be a player all the time, not just in free agency.

There’s never been any question that you need superstars to win in the NBA but quantifying exactly what qualifies as a superstar is not so simple. One measure I like is how many top-30 NBA players does a team in a 30 team NBA league have. By that measure, the Warriors have 4, the Cavs 3, and Rockets, Celtics, Raptors, Pelicans, Wolves, Grizzlies, and Thunder 2 Top-30 players. The Lakers have zero Top-30 NBA players, although IT was ranked #40.

I think there’s a chance that Lonzo and/or Brandon will develop into Top-30 NBA players. As talented as the rest of the Lakers young core is, I don’t see any other potential Top-30 NBA player although Kuzma might be a long shot. At any rate, it’s obvious that the Lakers need to do more than just stand the course to build their next NBA championship contender. Unsaid is the point that you don’t acquire Top-30 NBA players by trade without giving up assets.

So don’t get too attached to any of our young players. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are playing the same game that the Celtics’ Danny Ainge has played so well these past few years. In many ways, it can seem cold hearted but in the end, it’s designed to build a superteam because that’s the only way to win in today’s NBA. You have to continue develop and evolve as a team.

The Lakers goal is ideally to copy the Warriors and have Lonzo, Brandon, and Kyle develop into their versions of Steph, Klay, and Draymond. Paul George would be their Kevin Durant. The move I think has to be the Lakers ultimate target after landing Paul George is obviously Klay Thompson. No better way to quickly close the talent gap between a hungry rising young Lakers team and the perennial NBA Champion Warriors than stealing one of their best.

Whatever happens as the Lakers’ journey from the lottery to the NBA Finals, one thing is for sure. The mega trade with the Cavs will greatly accelerate the development and increase the potential of the Lakers next superteam.