Getting some perspective on the Lakers-Nets trade

D'Angelo Russell - Lakers

So on Tuesday the L.A. Lakers traded D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and the 27th overall pick in tonight’s draft.

As always, Woj broke the news:

And as is often the case with Woj-bombs like this one, it came as quite a surprise to most, especially Lakers fans.

For Nets fans on the other hand the deal was a stroke of genius, as Sean Marks landed something far better than the kind of high draft picks Brooklyn is so desperate for right now – a young player with NBA experience who gives them someone to build around going forward. And in exchange for a cap-hit that should have little impact on their rebuild.

As for the Lakers, it gives them a lot more cap space going forward, a starting-caliber center and guarantees them three first-round picks (2, 27 and 28) to use however they choose later on tonight. And yet fans still found the deal difficult to stomach, largely due to the involvement of Russell.

For those of us not associated with the franchise in any way though the deal makes a lot of sense.

And this is because if there’s one thing we know about the Lakers it’s that they rarely build through the draft.

That may be hard to fathom given their current circumstances, but the pressure to win in L.A. means that this team has to get good at a rate of knots. Sadly that in turn means that they don’t have time to wait for players like Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle to get good, especially when there are moves likely to have a huge impact on the team’s future sitting on the table.

Tuesday’s trade was once such move.

It meant that not only could the Lakers bring in a guy who averaged 24.9 points, 8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game in Lopez, they could also offload one of the worst contracts in the league – Mozgov is owed $48 million over the next three years – and add another pick to their stockpile.

In a sense the move smacks of desperation, as having to expend a quality player like Russell in order to get a god-awful contract off your books is never ideal. But right now the Lakers seem to be fully-focused on acquiring Paul George, either in the next twenty four hours or so, or in next summer’s free agency period.

And if they’re going to do that they’re going to need to acquire others who are working to his 27-year-old time frame to play around him.

At 29 Lopez is one such player. And of course we’ve heard a lot of talk about LeBron James becoming another when he has an opportunity to opt out of his current deal with the Cavs in 2018.

Even if the Lakers aren’t in a position to go after James, they should be able to find plenty of players interested in playing with PG13, who’s one of the best all-round players in the league right now. Surrounding him with youngsters like L.A.’s current crop just isn’t going to cut it. Although it is far easier to see a player like, say, Lonzo Ball fitting right in alongside an All-Star like George.

If the Lakers go ahead and add him with the second overall pick tonight (as they’re firmly expected to), that will go some way towards justifying the decision to move Russell.

Not least because having two young, ball-dominant point guards on the same roster makes little sense. And while Russell’s been solid during his first two years in the league (he’s averaged 14.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4 assists and 1.3 steals in that time), Lonzo is a far more intriguing prospect, who potentially offers a greater upside.

For instance, he’s a terrific facilitator – something it never hurts to have when you’ve got All-Star-caliber scorers on your roster. He’s got the kind of L.A. swagger that Lakers fans love. Plus, don’t say it too loudly, but given his size and physical attributes, Ball could actually develop into a pretty decent defender. Watch:

If all these hypotheticals come to fruition, Lonzo could end up being the Lakers version of  Kyrie Irving –  in the sense that he’d be the young guy on a team of “win-now” veterans. And, if he, George and LeBron do end up playing together in the next couple of seasons, the cap-friendly back end of his rookie deal will help them add other vets to the roster.

Speaking of additions, if the Lakers do want to add George now instead of waiting until next summer, it’s highly likely they’ll need to give up Clarkson, Randle and one of those low first-rounders in order to get him (they also have Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance Jr. and Ivica Zubac to shop around, but don’t expect them to). While there is an argument to be made that they’d be better off holding on to those two guys and waiting until George is a free agent next summer (just ask Carmelo Anthony about gutting a roster to acquire a star), there are, of course, significant financial advantages to getting George while he’s still under contract.

Not least because the Lakers have somewhere in the region of $19 million of cap space coming their way this summer, meaning they could rework his contract to give him around $30 million next season. On top of that, L.A. should have somewhere in the region of $34 million of cap space free next year to bring in new recruits. If they trade Randle and/or Clarkson that figure leaps again, and if they’re perhaps willing to give up another asset they might even be able to find someone to take Luol Deng’s contract (he’s set to earn $54 million over the next four years) off their hands, thus freeing up yet more room.

With the path to big names far more befitting of Laker-land than the young guns they currently possess well and truly open, Tuesday’s trade makes a heck of a lot of sense, even if Rob Pelinka opts to wait until next summer to go after George.

Because the bottom line is that the Lakers are the Lakers, and Tuesday’s trade is the most Laker-like thing they’ve done in a while.

Expect more, soon. Very soon.