BY: COLIN KRAUSS
The LA Lakers just finished off the first of two straight games against the San Antonio Spurs. The game was a back and forth slugfest between the mid-range masters led by Coach Pop and the springy youngsters in Hollywood. Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan, and LaMarcus Aldridge did what they could, but in the fourth quarter, the story ended in a way we’ve seen many times. With a LeBron takeover.
LeBron had 20 in the fourth quarter, including several ridiculous three pointers and old-fashioned three point plays. Brandon Ingram was only able to play 5 minutes, as he was inadvertently fouled by Aldridge as he came down on Aldridge’s foot after a jump shot, spraining his ankle. LA didn’t skip a beat when Ingram went down. It’s almost as though he doesn’t make a difference for the Lakers in their current team construction. This brings me to a concern the must be eating at the Lakers’ management day in and day out: when should Ingram be traded?
Before LeBron came to LA, Ingram was coming off a solid second half of the 2017-2018 season. He was being experimented with as a point-forward. During a 26-game stretch from January 1st, 2018 to March 30th, he was averaging 16 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.6 assists to go along with 45.3% shooting from behind the three point arc. As a 20 year old who hadn’t made a superstar leap yet, that’s incredibly encouraging. I’m sure other teams took note as well, wondering if Ingram is the versatile future star a rebuilding franchise might need.
Ingram is also an okay defender. He’s more long than he is skilled, but you’ll take any advantage on the defensive end that you can. As he fills out his frame, there’s a solid chance he can be a defensive stopper with the chops on offense to run a team within a few years.
Unfortunately for Los Angeles, Ingram is the only Laker being hurt by LeBron’s arrival, which is unnerving since he’s their biggest trade chip. Lonzo Ball has been empowered as a ball handler (with Rondo out). Kyle Kuzma has showed his confidence and scoring potential. Josh Hart is as hard a worker as you’ll find, and LeBron gets animated when Hart makes shots. Shaqtin’ a Fool legend Javale freaking McGee is having his best year of his life. Tyson Chandler would rather slap offensive rebounds than score, and LA needs that exact type of big. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been on and off, but he has the green light to fire threes. The only thing up and down the roster that LA doesn’t need is Brandon Ingram (let’s just agree not to speak of Lance Stephenson).
Ingram is the odd man out, and the difficulties of having him and LeBron James on the court at the same time has been well-documented on Twitter, ESPN, Reddit, you name it. Ingram plays similar to LeBron, except that he’s worse at everything (obviously, but the conflict of style is important). They are both ball-dominating perimeter players that use their own skill set to find weak points and boost offense. Both penetrate defenses in isolation and make plays for themselves and teammates. Ingram like to settle for mid-range pull ups. LeBron likes to attack the rim. Neither of them make a lot of sense off the ball because neither are spot up shooters. LeBron is a good cutter, but he’s most effective as the sole focal point with role players around him. So when they’re on the court at the same time, it’s redundant and they take away production from each other.
If we assume that LeBron isn’t going anywhere (duh), and Ingram doesn’t make sense with LeBron, then Ingram needs to be moved as soon as possible.
The longer the Lakers take to figure out how to realize their future goals on the court, the less Ingram will have trade value. Many things could go wrong. Ingram could face injuries, like he is right now, as he is not making the next road trip with Los Angeles after spraining his ankle. He’s already missed out on 5 games and counting this year. He also missed 23 last year. Injuries are real, and their impact on a player’s value may best be evidenced by the miniature extension Stephen Curry signed in 2013 after a few seasons of recurring ankle problems. He made, 9.9, 10.6, 11.4, and then 12.1 million dollars in consecutive years from 2014-2017, even though he was a two-time MVP and two-time champion by the e d of 2018. Injuries hurt players’ value. Although Curry is an extreme case of a player going from injury-riddled to one of the most incredible talents ever, the parallel of unfortunate events hurting player value could be drawn to Ingram.
It’s very unlikely Ingram’s value as a player will increase at any point this season. While LeBron allowed the Lakers a large championship window by signing a 3+1 contract, the window isn’t large enough to risk losses now for the sake of raising Ingram’s trade value. LeBron is going to be the man in LA for at least this year, and their supporting cast is average on the best of days. LeBron is going to have to dominate the team to do anything in the playoffs (and let’s be honest, he wouldn’t have it any other way). Giving Ingram a long leash to try out point-forward duties while LeBron watches off the ball can’t be their game plan this season.
Ingram still has that shine that teams are interested in. He’s 21. He’s on a rookie deal for this year and next year to go along with his Bird Rights. He’s almost 7 feet tall with a 7’3” wingspan. He seriously does have lead ball handler talent. The shooting may come around. His defense theoretically could be fantastic in the modern switching schemes. But the longer he’s on the Lakers, the less LA will get in return, whether that is due to injuries, his effectiveness, or how easy it is to play with him. As long as there is still a mystery surrounding how good Ingram can be, teams may forfeit Bradley Beal-sized pieces for the chance to have a perennial All-Star. The more teams see of him with actual talent next to him, they might decide he’s not worth losing a top player for.
I do not know the ins and outs of the deals Los Angeles could have made for Kawhi Leonard. I agreed with LA at the time to stand firm and not be too short-sighted by giving up all their assets for one player. But maybe they should have. Maybe Anthony Davis won’t go to LA in a trade if the best the Lakers can offer is Ingram and Ball. They definitely don’t compare to Boston’s arsenal of first round picks and both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Even a month or so ago, I thought that the idea of LA hedging their bets and settling for Beal in an Ingram trade was laughable. One month later, with Ingram not looking any better and suffering another injury, I may have been wrong again. Los Angeles might be punting the season, but the honeymoon phase is going to come to an end quickly. LeBron isn’t dropping two straight seasons just to wait for the second and third year players to come around. The Lakers are already on the clock, and Ingram needs to be traded as soon as possible if they want to maximize his trade value and build a contender.