Why a Lakers trade for a third star won’t be so easy for the franchise
There’s a natural assumption in the NBA, backed by decades of evidence: Where there is a disgruntled star, the Lakers remain positioned in the wings, ready to swoop in and snatch him.
From Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O’Neal to Anthony Davis, it’s understandable that fans could stray toward overconfidence when it comes to raking in talent, and recent trades such as James Harden to Brooklyn might make it seem as though the ground is fertile for more. Now with Ben Simmons on shaky ground in Philadelphia following a second-round playoff exit, and Damian Lillard seemingly bristling after a coaching hire gone sideways, it seems on the surface as if the Lakers could wheel-and-deal their way to a third star to put alongside Davis and LeBron James.
The question that kills this dream is a simple one: How?
The Lakers might have the pull of Southern California and rich basketball history in free agency, but when it comes to pulling off blockbuster trades, every team needs assets. And the Lakers simply don’t have that many right now.
Peek inside the Lakers’ war chest: The Lakers have the No. 22 first-round draft pick this season and a first-round pick in 2027 (and truly, who knows how good or bad the Lakers will be in six years?). They technically have first-round picks in 2023 and 2025 (subject to New Orleans pick swaps) which they can’t trade due to the NBA’s Stepien rule, which prevents first-rounders from being dealt in back-to-back years.
Off the bat, having only two tradeable first-round draft picks is a killer for these types of deals. In trading Harden, the Houston Rockets received three first-round picks (2022, 2024, 2026) and four possible pick swaps in addition to players. Jrue Holiday, who is a lesser player than Lillard but perhaps on a similar level to Simmons, was traded for two decent veteran players (Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe), two first-round picks and two pick swaps. By comparison, the Lakers can’t even offer swaps, because their future first-rounders are already subject to swaps themselves.
Then there’s the matter of matching the money. Lillard is making $39.3 million in salary next season on a maximum-level contract that runs through 2025 (his age 34 season). Simmons is making $30.6 million to kick off an extension that runs through 2025 (his age 28 season). To pull off an NBA trade, the Lakers have to match salary within a small range: They can take back 125% of the salary they send out. For Lillard, this means they’d have to trade out $31.4 million; for Simmons, it would be $24.5 million.
This is where it gets difficult given the contracts the Lakers have on the books. Does Philadelphia, for example, want Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ($13 million) and Kyle Kuzma ($13 million) for Simmons, plus the two iffy draft picks? Is that an appropriate return for an All-Star? The Lakers might be able also to trade Montrezl Harrell if he opts in ($9.7 million), but it’s hard to see 76ers general manager Daryl Morey seeing the value of any combination of those players measuring up to the value of Simmons, who even though he has shooting woes, is still one of the league’s best playmakers and defenders. And the Lakers’ trade chips aren’t coming off a stellar postseason that emphasizes their value.
Finding the right and realistic trade for Lillard, an All-NBA point guard, is pretty much impossible. Maybe the easiest route is if the Lakers were to send Dennis Schröder to Portland in a sign-and-trade, but Schröder (who is a free agent) would have to want to be signed and traded. While he has maintained that he is excited to be a free agent, he has also said publicly and privately that he hopes to extend his stay with the Lakers this summer. It’s unclear at the moment what Schröder’s market value is, but he turned down a reported $84 million, four-year offer from the Lakers earlier this season.
If the Trail Blazers – who have been criticized for their small, defensively unsound backcourt for years – are somehow interested in the 6-foot-3 Schröder, maybe the Lakers can swing a trade with him and either KCP or Kuzma. But that balance sheet still doesn’t really make sense with the lack of draft capital, when one considers the importance of Lillard to Portland’s franchise over the last decade and just what a winner he’s been. You can’t get superstar talent for pennies on the dollar.
One huge key difference between Lillard’s situation and Davis’ situation is the remaining years on his contract: Lillard has four more seasons (he can opt out after the third). That takes some of the juice out of his leverage. Davis was able to demand a trade with a season-and-a-half remaining on his deal because New Orleans knew he would walk for nothing – and they still got a boatload of draft picks and three solid young players, one of whom became an All-Star for the franchise. KCP, Kuzma, Harrell and even Schröder do not have that kind of upside, and won’t give the Portland franchise any sort of moral victory for trading away a player who has come to define the team.
If Lillard wants to force his way out of town, it will take time, and it will be unpleasant. For a long time, he’s been the ideal small market superstar, and even though reports are that he’s unhappy now, he could settle down and perhaps find a workable solution with his contract situation. If not, it’s more likely that a team with assets trades for him – in fact, it seems more likely that the star-hungry Morey might find a way to swing a deal with Simmons than the Lakers can land either star themselves.
Never say never when it comes to the Lakers. The franchise has an undeniable appeal that only heightens with the stars they already have on the roster. But it’s best not to hold one’s breath, either.