In 2020, the Los Angeles Lakers didn’t make a trade at the deadline, not because they couldn’t, but because they didn’t need to: They were the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and had a clear understating of what type of team they were.
Needless to say, a lot has changed since then. The question is: Why?
To answer that, we have to go back to Nov. 15, 2020, just 35 days after the Lakers hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy in Orlando. After a disappointing debut season in Los Angeles, Danny Green was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Dennis Schröder. The Lakers also sent out the No. 28 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
The trade itself wasn’t bad — after all, in the season prior, Schröder finish second in Sixth Man of the Year voting to Montrezl Harrell, the latter of whom the Lakers also signed in the summer of 2020. Their actual mistake was not retaining Schröder, or at the very least getting something in return for him when he left a year later.
Under Rob Pelinka, that’s been a pattern for these Lakers.
When Schröder first arrived in Los Angeles, the Lakers were determined to get him to sign a contract extension, and rightfully so: They gave up a first-round pick for him. But as the season went on, and Schröder’s desire to be played and paid like a star player was pushed to the forefront of the team’s disappointing season, their level of urgency changed. It shouldn’t have.
As big of a distraction as Schröder was on (and sometimes off) the court during his brief Lakers career, he was productive. As productive as the Lakers envisioned he’d be when they traded for him or offered him a four-year, $84 million contract extension? Almost certainly not, but it was production they literally could not afford to replace because they had Schröder’s bird rights and therefore were able to go over the cap to re-sign him.
And yet, when Schröder became an unrestricted free agent in 2021, the Lakers let him walk and he signed a one-year, $5.9 million deal with the Boston Celtics. There’s no guarantee that he would have taken that deal with the Lakers — in fact, given the negotiations that took place during the 2020-21 season, it’s safe to assume that he wouldn’t have — but that’s not the point.
The point is Schröder made it known he had interest in coming back, and according to a report from Bill Oram of The Athletic on Wednesday, those feelings didn’t change after the Russell Westbrook trade. It’s possible — if not likely — that Schröder would have grown tired of backing up Westbrook, but even if that happened, they could have traded him. Almost everything the Lakers could have done was better than letting him walk, and if the front office didn’t have the foresight to see that when they traded for him, they never should have — at least then they would still have Green and a first-round pick.
The Schröder saga is one example of the Lakers mismanaging their assets, but he’s not even the most famous one.
Like Schröder, Alex Caruso was an unrestricted free agent in 2021, and like Schröder, the Lakers had his bird rights. The difference between Schröder and Caruso, though, is that Caruso had proven in consecutive seasons that he made the Lakers better, especially when paired with LeBron James. If re-signing Talen Horton-Tucker to a long-term contract was priority 1A for the Lakers, Caruso should have been 1B.
Instead, the Lakers offered Caruso an insulting two-year contract worth less than $15 million. Caruso has gone on record and said that he would have taken less than the four-year, $37 million contract he signed with the Chicago Bulls, but the Lakers weren’t even interested in that because of how much it would have cost them in luxury tax payments.
That was indefensible at the time, but since then that decision has cost the Lakers’ championship aspirations more than it would have cost the team’s ownership to keep him around —because not only do the Lakers not have Caruso, but they also don’t have anyone that comes close to replicating what he provided the Lakers on both ends of the floor. His absence his been felt arguably more than anyone who’s left the team since 2020.
It’s not just the players that the Lakers have missed this season, though; it’s their salaries too. A big part of the reason the Lakers weren’t able to make a trade at the deadline is because they only had two tradable contracts outside of Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and Anthony Davis: Talen Horton-Tucker’s three-year, $32 million deal and Kendrick Nunn’s two-year, $10 million deal.
Horton-Tucker and Nunn are assets even in light of the problems they’ve had this year, but their combined value — from a monetary and talent perspective — wasn’t enough to get the Lakers the type of help they needed at Thursday’s trade deadline.
The other issue was that teams knew how desperate the Lakers were to acquire talent at the deadline with their limited assets, so that package wasn’t even being entertained without a first-round pick attached to it, and even then it wouldn’t have been a suitable return for the Lakers. Re-signing Caruso and/or Schröder would have given them much more breathing room and, to the larger point, assets.
The Russell Westbrook trade will live in infamy in Lakers history and can be used as another example of the Lakers’ bad asset management, but the Westbrook trade wasn’t the worst thing the Lakers’ front office did last summer; it was everything after: Letting Caruso walk, letting Schröder walk, letting Andre Drummond walk after they signed him midseason to replace Marc Gasol, who had played a huge role in the Lakers’ using a second-round pick to move JaVale McGee’s contract, and even not firing Frank Vogel when they knew the roster wouldn’t fit his style. It all adds up to an expensive flop. Even if it doesn’t add up in ownership’s immediate costs, it surely isn’t helping profits.
It’s hard to pinpoint the blame on one person because the organization’s leadership ladder seems to be deliberately ambiguous and prone to constant anonymous finger pointing, but one thing’s for certain: The Lakers have no one to blame but themselves for the mess that they’re in. In the span of two years, they turned a championship favorite into a lottery team, and they won’t even get to reap the benefits of being a lottery team for quite some time due to not owning a first-round pick until 2027 at the soonest.
Maybe things will turn around eventually because of James’ greatness or pure Lakers exceptionalism, but right now, the Lakers stink, and help isn’t on the way because they pushed all of it out. They did this to themselves.