INDIANAPOLIS — As LeBron James closes in on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring report, one other enjoyable truth looms for later this spring: James is closing in on proudly owning nearly each cumulative playoff report conceivable. He has already left Abdul-Jabbar within the mud in playoff factors, and he additionally leads in video games, minutes, discipline targets, free throws, turnovers, steals and win shares.
The subsequent merchandise on the radar is the tantalizingly shut report for playoff 2-point baskets; James trails Abdul-Jabbar by simply 63. He additionally trails Magic Johnson by solely two for the report for playoff triple-doubles.
Surely he might cross each in a single playoff sequence … if he will get the chance to play in a single.
Will this staff give him that chance?
Thursday’s recreation between Indiana and Los Angeles was an fascinating reminder of the state of affairs for the Lakers. For as nice as James has been and continues to be (he had 26 factors, seven rebounds and 7 assists), the (largely Lakers) followers in Gainbridge Fieldhouse have been left watching a nip-and-tuck battle to the wire between the groups that started the evening tied for the Twenty first-best report within the 30-team NBA.
The Lakers eked out a 112-111 win, sure, however it moved them from thirteenth place all the best way to … Twelfth. James’ presence nonetheless hasn’t been sufficient to offset obvious weaknesses up and down the remainder of the roster, with the Lakers a fair 21-21 when he performs (and 4-7 when he doesn’t, which was rumored to be the case previous to tipoff earlier than he determined to play by means of a nagging foot downside).
Thus, with every week earlier than the commerce deadline, we really feel no nearer to a solution to the Lakers’ nice existential query than we have been on opening evening. To wit, is that this a staff price salvaging? Or are the Lakers higher off taking their medication, visiting the lottery and attempting once more subsequent season?
Thursday’s opponent solely underscored that state of affairs. The Indiana Pacers have been initially considered tanking but started the sport with the identical report as L.A. Moreover, two of the Pacers’ key starters, Myles Turner and Buddy Hield, have been initially rumored to be potential targets for the Lakers in return for unprotected first-round picks in 2027 and 2029. (Those are the earliest picks the Lakers can legally commerce earlier than the deadline.)
Turner’s latest renegotiation-and-extension take care of Indy seemingly takes that commerce risk off the desk*, however that’s hardly the one risk on the market for L.A. The Lakers are sitting on a number of giant, expiring contracts, most notably these of Russell Westbrook ($47 million) and Patrick Beverley ($13 million), and along with the 2 future firsts, they will nonetheless transfer future seconds in 2023, 2024, 2025 and 2027.
(* Extended cap nerd sidebar: Although Turner’s new deal is theoretically not topic to a six-month commerce restriction the best way some extensions are, I’ve additionally talked to a well-connected supply who thinks the league workplace would make an enormous frowny face if the Pacers have been to show round and commerce him so rapidly after inking a renegotiate-and-extend deal except it have been to a different staff that may have been capable of renegotiate and lengthen him. San Antonio is the one such staff, and that isn’t occurring. However, if the Pacers commerce him in June, nonetheless inside six months, it will seemingly be a special story; it will be a lot more durable for the league workplace to argue there have been cap-circumventing shenanigans given the time between transactions.)
Of course, the Lakers already gave us a partial reply to this existential query once they traded three second-round picks to Washington for Rui Hachimura. Most of my league sources, given anonymity so they might converse freely, pegged this as a 2023 free-agency transfer greater than an in-season roster makeover, and in that case, it could possibly be a sign that L.A. intends to maintain pushing in chips relatively than accumulate 2023 cap house.
The newest sizzling thought making the rounds — and I’ll emphasize that this concept has been pretty closely trafficked in principle regardless of little proof that it’s been mentioned in actuality — is the notion of buying and selling Westbrook and the long run firsts to Toronto, unprotected, in return for Klutch shopper Gary Trent Jr. and certain future Klutch shopper Fred VanVleet. Both are seemingly free brokers with participant choices on their offers, however presumably, the closeness of Klutch and the Lakers would make re-upping extra palatable.
There are methods of splitting the newborn, too. Would the Lakers take into account buying and selling Beverley and a single first in 2027, protected 1-4, and reverting to a 2027 second if not conveyed, in return for sharpshooter Trent? Such a transfer would let the Lakers function as an over-the-cap staff to re-sign Trent, the not too long ago acquired Hachimura and Westbrook and retain the pliability of utilizing the primary in 2029 and their 2023 first-rounder on draft evening.*
(* The Lakers owe their 2023 first to New Orleans in a choose swap; nonetheless, they may have a primary both approach, both their very own or that of the Pelicans. They can’t commerce it till the evening of the NBA Draft, nonetheless, due to the Stepien rule and the potential of their 2024 choose conveying to the Pelicans. Waiting till draft evening would additionally make it simpler to jot down protections right into a commerce of the 2029 choose since it will be eligible to defer to 2030 at that time.)
Going down the over-the-cap pathway might additionally permit the Lakers to pursue one other angle: extending Westbrook. They seemingly wouldn’t entertain this till commerce angles are off the desk, however take into account the very fact the Lakers might put him on subsequent 12 months’s books for, say, $15 million and wouldn’t have any commerce restrictions on it (which isn’t the case if he re-signs in free company).
Thus, Westbrook’s contract would proceed to function as a possible commerce chip all through the offseason (or on draft evening) in that situation, and if nothing materialized, they might simply deliver him again. Of course, Westbrook must comply with the deal. But that’s the transfer which may maximize L.A.’s offseason flexibility if it doesn’t wish to be a cap house staff, one thing that appears extra seemingly within the wake of the Hachimura commerce.
Are half-measures the reply, although? Is pushing a Twelfth-place staff into the Play-In Tournament the endgame right here, or are we aiming a bit increased? While it’s true the Western Conference standings are extraordinarily compressed, even attending to 45 wins would require a powerful closing run from the Lakers.
Another argument can be to go for the cap house situation and see what occurs and solely do probably the most boring factor attainable on the commerce deadline (Juan Toscano-Anderson, Wenyen Gabriel and money to the Spurs would save hundreds of thousands in luxurious tax funds. Wooooo, let’s goooooo!!!).
Which takes us again to the nightly torment of the Lakers. Watching James take over video games or Anthony Davis casually swat away Tyrese Haliburton’s go-ahead layup try, it’s straightforward to imagine in the concept that one or two extra good gamers on a largely replacement-level roster might make this one of many West’s higher groups in a single day. On the opposite hand, the stark math of the place they stand and the way far that leaves them from the league’s higher crust argues for the other course.
There’s solely every week to resolve, and the Lakers have solely two video games left earlier than the commerce deadline. And but, 52 video games into the season, we appear no nearer to a solution to the defining query of the Lakers’ season.
(Top photograph of LeBron James in L.A.’s win over the Pacers: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)