The Los Angeles Lakers have been the most-watched team in the NBA over the last 3 seasons, mainly because LeBron James decided to take his talents to Los Angeles. Anywhere The King goes, he brings a massive following to the franchise because he has been the most dominant player of his era. After all, King James has won everywhere he has been, whether it was Miami, Cleveland, or eventually Los Angeles.
As the best leader in the game, LeBron affects winning better than any player in the game and that has been the case for a very long time. James was also part of a championship team in the 2020 covid-shortened season, as he forced the Lakers franchise to go into win-now mode by striking a massive deal for Anthony Davis before the season started. The Lakers are renowned for being a franchise that is dedicated to winning at all costs, and with LeBron on the roster, they released all of their future assets for a win-now superstar in Davis.
It worked out in their favor, as Davis and LeBron ran riot in the league and dominated the postseason en route to the 2020 NBA championship. But since then, the Lakers have been average at best. Last year, the Lakers faltered to a first-round exit with Davis exhibiting never-ending injuries and LeBron James finally looking older. Los Angeles did not accept their situation, breaking up their championship core from 2020 in favor of former MVP Russell Westbrook.
Of course, Westbrook has not been a blessing for Los Angeles and might have made the team worse because he does not fit alongside an aging LeBron James. Sitting at the 8th seed with a 22-22 record, the Lakers are at .500 and likely not going to see the playoffs without a play-in victory. Looking back at the two blockbuster deals to bring in Davis and Westbrook, did the Lakers make the right moves by losing all their young stars in an effort to win the 2020 championship? It is time to find out by revisiting the history of the Los Angeles Lakers’ decisions over the past 3 years.
Trade Package for Anthony Davis
Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, De'Andre Hunter, Brandon Ingram, 2021 First-Round Pick (Isaiah Jackson), 2023 First-Round Pick, 2024 First Round Pick, Isaac Bonga, Jemerrio Jones, Moritz Wagner, 2022 Second-Round Pick For Anthony Davis
July 6, 2019: As part of a 3-team trade, traded by the New Orleans Pelicans to the Los Angeles Lakers; the Los Angeles Lakers traded Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, De'Andre Hunter, Brandon Ingram, cash, a 2021 1st round draft pick (Isaiah Jackson was later selected), a 2023 1st round draft pick and a 2024 1st round draft pick to the New Orleans Pelicans; the Los Angeles Lakers traded Isaac Bonga, Jemerrio Jones, Moritz Wagner and a 2022 2nd round draft pick to the Washington Wizards; and the Washington Wizards traded cash to the New Orleans Pelicans. (9-30 protected, unprotected in 2022) (2023 first-round pick is right to swap with LAL.) (NOP have the option to defer 2024 first-round pick to 2025.) $1MM $1.1MM
The Lakers knew that Anthony Davis was available, and there was no secret he wanted to join LeBron James in Los Angeles. At that point, Davis was a 6-time All-Star and MVP candidate who had a career average of 23.7 PPG and 10.5 RPG. There was also talk about Davis being the most skilled power forward in NBA history because he combined raw size and basketball IQ with shooting and ball-handling skills.
In order to pry the wantaway Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans, the Lakers had to give up their entire future. Lonzo Ball was their No. 2 overall pick, but he was let go despite the frustration of his father, LaVar Ball. Ball was not quite the all-around player he is now, but he was still decent with averages of 10.0 PPG, 6.2 RPG, and 6.4 APG. Los Angeles were also forced to let go of Brandon Ingram, their No. 2 overall pick in 2016, who held career averages of 13.9 PPG and 4. RPG at that point. The rights to budding star De’Andre Hunter were also given away, and starting-caliber swingman Josh Hart was also considered expendable. Role players Isaac Bonga, Jemerrio Jones, Mortiz Wagner, and a couple of picks were also released in the trade.
Looking back, that is a massive package for a superstar of Anthony Davis’ talents. While the Pelicans currently only have Ingram and Hart on their roster, the Lakers took Anthony Davis and ran all the way to the 2020 NBA title. Without the Davis trade, the Lakers do not win the 2020 title but probably have a championship core later down the line.
Trade Package for Russell Westbrook
Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell No. 22 pick for Russell Westbrook, 2024 second-round pick, 2028 second-round pick
August 6, 2021: As part of a 5-team trade, traded by the Washington Wizards with a 2023 2nd round draft pick, a 2024 2nd round draft pick and a 2028 2nd round draft pick to the Los Angeles Lakers; the Brooklyn Nets traded Spencer Dinwiddie to the Washington Wizards; the Indiana Pacers traded Aaron Holiday and Isaiah Todd to the Washington Wizards; the Los Angeles Lakers traded Isaiah Jackson to the Indiana Pacers; the Los Angeles Lakers traded Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell and Kyle Kuzma to the Washington Wizards; the San Antonio Spurs traded Nikola Milutinov to the Brooklyn Nets; the San Antonio Spurs traded a 2022 2nd round draft pick to the Washington Wizards; the Washington Wizards traded a 2024 2nd round draft pick and a 2025 2nd round draft pick to the Brooklyn Nets; and the Washington Wizards traded Chandler Hutchison to the San Antonio Spurs. Indiana also received a trade exception 2023 conditional 2nd-rd pick is CHI own 2024 2nd-rd pick is least favorable 2028 2nd-rd pick is WAS own 2024 2nd-rd pick is more favorable 2025 2nd-rd pick is a swap option; Brooklyn also received a trade exception 2022 2nd-rd pick is an opportunity to swap
The second blockbuster move the Lakers carried out was acquiring 9-time All-Star and former MVP Russell Westbrook. The move was carried out for one simple reason: cover for the aging LeBron James. Even if LeBron was the best player in the world in 2020, he finally looked old in 2021 and was incapable of carrying the Lakers on his back with Davis in and out of the lineup with injury issues. With Westbrook, the Lakers felt they had a ball-handler who could carry the offense while James rests.
The trade seemed logical in that sense, but not when both Westbrook and James are on the floor together. Both players need the ball to be effective as superstars, and Westbrook especially remains ineffective as an off-ball player. We had seen that in Houston when Westbrook could hardly help the Rockets defeat a tanking Thunder squad in the first round of the “Bubble” playoffs. But the Lakers made the deal anyway, and with most likely the sign-off from LeBron as well.
Looking back, this deal might have hurt the Lakers because they lost 3 capable rotational pieces who could have given LeBron the depth he needs at this stage of his career. Going after big names could backfire at times, and that might be the case with Westbrook.
How The Lakers Would Look Today Without Blockbuster Trades
Here is how the Lakers depth chart would have looked if they never went after Davis and Westbrook, assuming they would have signed the role players they signed recently.
Point Guards: Lonzo Ball, Kendrick Nunn
Shooting Guards: Talen Horton-Tucker, Josh Hart, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Malik Monk
Small Forwards: Brandon Ingram, De'Andre Hunter, Wayne Ellington
Power Forwards: LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma, Carmelo Anthony
Centers: Montrezl Harrell, Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan
Clearly, the Lakers have a ton of depth without the two superstars on the roster, and manpower is exactly what an aging King needs at nearly 37 years old. Even if none of these names are as renowned as Davis or Westbrook, they are all exceptional role players who are capable of starting games when needed.
Losing these starting-caliber players hurts because they far usurp the likes of Avery Bradley, Trevor Ariza, Kent Bazemore, and the other players thrust into the lineup this season. This is even more glaring once we consider how the contracts will be structured by the Lakers, who currently have almost $80 million tied up to Davis and Westbrook alone.
Contracts And Salary Cap
Obviously, LeBron James is making major money ($41,180,544 and $44,474,988 this season and next season). If Brandon Ingram is signed to a max deal that he currently has, that locks him with Los Angeles for the next few years ($29,467,800, $31,650,600, $33,833,400, $36,016,200). Ingram is only the 35th highest-paid player, in comparison with Anthony Davis (15th) and Russell Westbrook (4th). Therefore, Ingram is on a very team-friendly deal for the present and future.
Hart is making a little over $12 million over the next 3 years (player option included) while Lonzo Ball is also on a solid salary ($18,604,651, $19,534,884, $20,465,117, $21,395,348) and has a player option in his last year. Had the Lakers kept a hold of Hart and Ball, both players might have been able to earn a bit less to accommodate the rest of the team.
De’Andre Hunter is making under $10 million for two seasons, and around $12 million in 2024. Kuzma and Harrell are making a combined $20 million this year, and their long-term contracts could be negotiated appropriately, especially if the team is contending. Finally, all other role players (Malik Monk, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Kendrick Nunn, DeAndre Jordan, Wayne Ellington) will accept the minimum as they did this year. Finally, if the Lakers are hell-bent on keeping Talen Horton-Tucker, he would be signed to a long-term. At the moment, he is making ($9,500,000, $10,260,000, $11,020,000) over the next 3 seasons with a player option at the end.
Having a roster filled with young stars and plenty of depth greatly outweighs paying over $44 million for two seasons for a turnover-prone Russell Westbrook and an injury-prone Anthony Davis. Davis will make the following sums of money over the next few years (player option in 2025): $35,361,360, $37,980,720, $40,600,080, $43,219,440. There is no way he will be able to stay healthy over the next 3 years to make up for the salary he is given.
Los Angeles have all their money tied up in two inconsistent stars, instead of a host of young stars that will help the franchise in the future. But had the Lakers not traded for Davis and Westbrook, would they have won a championship by now?
Would This Team Win An NBA Championship?
Even if the Lakers would not have won the 2020 NBA title, they would have been in the running for a title this season. After all, look at the way the “youngsters” have developed. Brandon Ingram is one of the best young players in the world, averaging 22.7 PPG, 6.1 RPG, and 5.2 APG this season after making the All-Star Team in 2020. Lonzo Ball is one of the most consistent starting point guards in the league, as he brings elite defense along with playmaking skills. Instead of an erratic Westbrook who is turnover prone, Lonzo is a much more consistent point guard who hardly takes bad shots.
Josh Hart is putting up 13.1 PPG and 7.5 RPG this season and has developed into a very solid starting-caliber wing in the NBA. Kyle Kuzma is having a career resurgence, putting up 15.7 PPG and 8.9 RPG for the Washington Wizards while shooting 45.3% from the field. Montrezl Harrell, the Lakers’ starting center without Davis, is averaging 14.6 PPG and 7.3 RPG this year. Of course, De’Andre Hunter has yet to hit his prime but is still showing signs of promise by putting up 12.1 PPG at only 24 years old.
For the role players, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was absolutely essential for the Lakers’ title run in 2020, because he formed a dynamic defensive duo with Danny Green. Caldwell-Pope averaged 38.5% from three during the 2020 regular season, while shooting 37.8% in the playoffs. As a 3-and-D role player, he is much better than what the Lakers have right now. Kendrick Nunn, Malik Monk, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, and DeAndre Jordan would have all been signed to the contracts they currently have. Instead of these players starting games, they would be solid backups for a solid championship team which are the roles they need.
Had all of these players played together this year, the Lakers would not be at .500 and rather would be one of the best teams in the West. Brandon Ingram is a legitimate second-scoring option, and he would be a perfect sidekick to LeBron instead of an erratic Westbrook or injury-prone Davis. Lonzo brings controlled play at the point guard spot, and the wing spots are covered by 3-and-D players including Caldwell-Pope, Hunter, Horton-Tucker, and Hart. Montrezl Harrell and Kyle Kuzma are better than the bigs the Lakers currently have and will be available to play instead of the often-injured Davis who has only played 63 games over the last two seasons combined.
Did Lakers Make A Long-Term Mistake?
In a nutshell, the Lakers sacrificed their future for one title in 2020. That was obvious at the time, but the Lakers were too hell-bent on winning a title with LeBron James on the roster. The trade for Davis did prove to be successful at the time, although critics could point to the fact that James benefitted greatly from the covid-shortened season. Had the NBA season gone underway without a pause, perhaps things would be different. But nonetheless, at this stage of the season, the Lakers would have been better off without Davis and Westbrook on the roster.
The Lakers would have had a better roster in the future had they opted to not trade for Davis and Westbrook, with a chance to win more than one championship. The likes of Ingram, Ball, Hart, and Hunter will continue to improve and their progress would have only increased under the mentorship of LeBron James. Los Angeles will not win a championship with Russell Westbrook on the roster, and the franchise’s future does not look very good right now.
James is almost 37 and has seen his level of play decrease over the last two years, so the Lakers cannot rely on him going forward. Meanwhile, Davis is injury-prone and that won’t change as he gets older. Talen Horton-Tucker and Malik Monk are the only young players on the squad with potential, but neither will likely become All-Stars. Los Angeles have sacrificed their future for the sake of one championship, when they could have set themselves up for more than one had they kept their roster intact.