BY: COLIN KRAUSS
Anthony Davis wants out of New Orleans, according to his agent Rich Paul.
Paul is part of the Klutch Sports agency notoriously teamed up with LeBron James, although of course LeBron doesn’t add into those discussions, because that would be against the rules. And we all know that the rules do not get broken behind the scenes in the NBA when it comes to free agency, superteams, and inter-state friendships. Jokes aside, this is the story of the season and maybe the biggest since Kevin Durant signed with Golden State or LeBron went to Miami. Conventional wisdom and reading the tea leaves is leading the NBA media superstructure to believe that the front runners to land Davis in a trade are the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics.
The Los Angeles Lakers have one slight advantage over the Boston Celtics. Due to a wrinkle in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement (The Rose Rule), you can only have one player extended through a Designated Player Extension on your team at one time. Kyrie Irving is one such player. So the Lakers have a window through until the trade deadline that the Celtics can not make an offer (unless they put Kyrie Irving in the deal). The Lakers would probably need to ship over their war chest of youngsters to New Orleans, so it’s a good time to look at the young core of the Lakers and see what they are and could be down the line. If they have enough future value to entice New Orleans, then Davis could be halfway to LA right now. If not, we could be talking about Davis to Boston in the summer, who has a significantly more sexy set of assets. New York is also in the mix to grab Davis, and any mystery team could pop out of nowhere to offer an All-Star and picks for an immediate upgrade.
The major and minor players the Lakers have are Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Ivica Zubac, Svi Mykhailiuk, Moe Wagner and Isaac Bonga.
Ingram is the Laker with the highest ceiling. As a 6’9” forward with ball handling skill, a nice mid-range game, surprising defensive versatility, and a threat of a three point shot, Ingram is what the future of the league is trying to look like. He can be theoretically any position 1 through 4. He can defend 1 through 4 quite well, which bodes well in a league more and more invested in switching defenses.
He’s also very young. Ingram is still just 21, and several years away from his prime. He will be an NBA player for a long time, and All-Star games will be in his future. Is that good enough?
Ingram is a very hit or miss prospect. What I mean by this is that it’s unclear whether Ingram can be a valuable role player for a very good team. He’s been ineffective alongside LeBron James so far this season, which is concerning, because LeBron is one of the players commonly seen as a high tide that raises all boats. But Ingram couldn’t seem to follow that blueprint. The biggest drawback is his jumpshot. His three point shooting has been disappointing. He’s a career 32% three point shooter and is at 30.9% this season. That’s really unsettling three years into his NBA career. Ingram’s ceiling is closely tied to his three point accuracy. If he can be a 38% shooter from deep at some point (like he was in 2017-2018), he can probably be a first, second, or third option for a team for a long time. If he remains under 35%, then it’s tougher to put him alongside a superstar. But it’s also tougher for him to be the main guy for a franchise. Ingram isn’t so incredible a playmaker or point guard that he must be the focal point of a franchise.
So Ingram becomes very much valued in the eye of the beholder. If New Orleans looks at Ingram and sees a 6’9” orchestrator of an offense, then he’s extremely valuable. If they see a taller Andrew Wiggins, he may have much less value. Adding to that, it’s not like Ingram has blown away the NBA world while he’s had the opportunity to shine with LeBron out.
In the 16 games since LeBron has left, Ingram has per game averages of about 18 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists on 48/31/63 shooting splits. That’s all right, but what’s alarming is the team worst -4.6 Plus/Minus he’s carrying. Ingram isn’t a positive player on the court at this time. As a number three overall pick now in his third year, you want to see that next leap into All-Star contention, and he hasn’t been able to do that in any capacity at all this season. Of course he’s 21 years old and in the spotlight, but the minimal progress so far is concerning.
As the Lakers’ premiere trade chip, the play this year leaves much to be desired, and Ingram has most likely hurt his trade value since last summer, and he is unquestionably a worse asset than the Celtics best asset, Jayson Tatum.
Ball is my favorite of the bunch, and as a die-hard Laker fan since July 1st, 2018, I don’t want to see Ball go. Unlike Ingram, Ball has flashed serious potential as a star point guard, passer, defender, shooter, hard worker, and, if I can put it lightly, a basketball genius. Ball’s IQ is noteworthy. His passing vision and quarterback accuracy has been on full display this year, and in a league that values that ability more and more, Ball is a futuristic point guard.
He’s 6’6”. He’s wiry and sneakily strong, even though he is pretty skinny. He’s incredibly athletic. His quickness, explosiveness, top speed, and coordination are top notch. But can he stay on the court?
Unfortunately for the Lakers, Ball has also impacted his trade value quite a bit most likely by being unable to stay healthy. He has already suffered knee and ankle injuries in the past, and he is now out for 4-6 weeks with a grade 3 ankle sprain. As Ball was revving up his value consistently up until the injury with strong play, it was looking like he could be able to stay on the court. Now, for the foreseeable future, Lonzo is going to be seen as “injury-prone” until he can prove he isn’t, and he very well may be as injury prone as it appears.
Even though the injuries are concerning, the flashes he showed this season were spectacular. His defense is completely chaotic. He is too quick even for point guards and can stay in front of the most capable players. He is smart, knows what opposing players want to do, and has quick enough hands to prod for steals and make guards very uncomfortable. He also is the only player in the NBA, outside of TJ McConnell, that is always guarding the opposing point guard all 94 feet. This brings some fantastic highlights, like his revenge game on the Nuggets, where he took the ball from Jamal Murray right after an inbound and scored an uncontested lay up. This also takes away a couple extra seconds from the shot clock, making the opposing offense just a tad more rushed, and helps him cause more havoc. Lonzo should also be able to switch up to bigger positions as well. He can guard smaller threes, and maybe the weakest of fours, but in particular, Ball can be a long-term defensive option to shut down most point and shooting guards. In a league run by ball-handling perimeter players, that can’t be underrated. The most similar defensive comparison for Ball is a Jrue Holiday type, which is about as good as it gets for a guard.
Ball also showcased his future as a full-time offensive coordinator. He was given the keys to the offense during the Lakers’ game against the OKC Thunder a couple weeks ago. The moment it was decided that Ball should run the pick and rolls and the ball-handling duties, the Lakers started to hum on offense. They even managed to win that game against the scorching hot Thunder, which was assumed to be an L. Then, the very next game, the Lakers destroyed the Houston Rockets… until Ball injured himself on a drive in the third quarter. The Lakers were up 69-54 against James Harden in the midst of a legendary scoring run. Then Ball went down, and everything cratered. I think that is the value of Lonzo Ball. When he is healthy and given the right duties, he can run an offense and be the first line of defense on the other side, and be the secondary or tertiary star.
Ball has had issues both scoring and finishing. His shot is tough to look at, but the results aren’t as bad as they lowlight videos would lead you to believe. He doesn’t have good feel for scoring in a pinch. His floater isn’t good. His post game isn’t good. But I honestly see the potential for all those talents, and Lonzo is one player that I completely give all faith he can figure it out. The All-NBA potential does exist somewhere deep inside of Lonzo, but he needs to be the one to materialize it.
Now, the game becomes staying on the court for Lonzo. Does New Orleans see an injured, clunky, non-shooting point guard? Or do they see the brilliant, capable, All-NBA defender with a hope for a jumpshot down the road? Like Ingram, Ball’s value is largely in the eye of the beholder, which may not be good for LA if the Pelicans are the only potential suitor for him. (Personally, I love Ball. I expect nothing other than what Magic Johnson saw, a future jersey up in the rafters of Staples Center). Will New Orleans see that?
Kyle Kuzma is shaping up to be most likely a long term starter. While there’s a lot of value in that, it’s not exactly a home run swing in terms of prospects. However, it’s still without a doubt a positive asset, no debate about that.
Kuzma has a lot of things going for him as a trade chip. He is a bonafide wing. He’s tall, he’s strong, he’s explosive at times. He can play the 3 or 4, and just maybe he gets strong enough on defense to eventually play small-ball 5. His defensive intensity comes and goes, but there’s a lot of optimism he can be a positive defender at the position of most need currently. In a league with LeBron, Durant, Leonard, Giannis, and Harden, you need those wing-sized versatile stoppers. Kuzma showed growth on that end, but not enough to claim he can ever get to a place in his career where locking down the Greek Freak actually happens.
On offense, Kuzma has taken on a few roles for the Lakers. With LeBron on the court, and Ingram struggling, Kuzma became the number two option. He stretched the floor, but wasn’t particularly efficient at it. His main game at the moment is a self-starter scorer. He can hit threes. He can make little fadeaways in and through the lane. He has shown promise on a nice floater. He’s very good in transition, since he is unexpectedly athletic. He can really bounce off one or two feet. He’s not a fantastic finisher at the rim through contact, but he has the tools to eliminate that shortcoming.
The number one drawback for Kuzma has been his efficiency. After an out-of-nowhere rookie campaign where he slashed 45/37/71, the thought was that when LeBron signed with LA, his efficiency should increase. Even though 37% from three is amazing for a rookie wing, the fall from grace is daunting. He’s been hovering around 30% all year from three, and that’s simply unacceptable. The good news is he’s better everywhere else. His 2PT% is up from 51% to 57%, which is phenomenal. He’s now over 70% at the rim, and an unreal 51% from 10-16 feet from the basket. Hopefully, his three point shooting comes around (as it should, because a 7% drop in three point shooting from the prior year seems unsustainably awful).
New Orleans would be smart to make sure Kuzma is in every potential deal on the table. It’s true he’s 24 already, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You know what you’re getting with Kuzma, but there’s going to be more growth and it’s clear all he wants to do is ball.
The last of the “young core” is Josh Hart. Hart has the lowest ceiling of this group. As a 6’5” guard, he has a lot of positional value in the modern NBA. But unlike the three other kiddies, he isn’t going to be a high usage player on a good team. He makes his most value on offense through three point shooting. He’s also seriously impressive at attacking the rim and taking contact in transition.
Hart is an energizer bunny. His effort on the defensive end makes him look like a rabid animal, and any team in the league wants a guy like that. The fact he can be a 3-and-D guard is appealing for a rebuilding team. Even though he’s about to turn 24, he can easily be in the Pelicans timeline for when they become competitive again.
But Hart has not had a perfect season either. He’s been inconsistent all year. Some games he looks like a younger Gary Harris, who is a borderline All-Star type of talent. On other nights, he can’t score, makes sloppy turnovers, and looks lost. There have been many games where Hart gets 25+ minutes, but only manages to get up 6 or 7 shots. The Lakers without LeBron aren’t that talented. As one of the only reliable shooters on the team, you’d hope he can get a ton of looks. But he goes through periods where he doesn’t put up those shots he needs to. And this just can’t be the case. Hart needs to score threes to be a valuable player on the floor.
The potential fit for Hart is pretty universal. The reason he doesn’t have real trade value is due to his sophomore slump. His rookie year, he was very efficient on a somewhat competitive team. His True Shooting% was 59.6, which is really good. This year, it’s down to 53.8 over a large sample size. This would be okay if he had some untapped potential, but Hart is mainly a known commodity. He won’t get too much better, and may not even be starter level player for a championship team. His key to success is getting back to being a 39% three point shooter like he was last season and treating every defensive possession like it’s is last.
Zubac is the craziest development for LA this year. He started off the season as the back-up to Javale McGee. When the Lakers picked up Tyson Chandler, he was pushed to the third string. But then it all changed when Javale went down with pneumonia and Chandler dealt with back spasms. Zubac got to play 32 minutes on December 21 against the Pelicans. He shot 8-10 from the floor, got 16 points, and grabbed 11 boards. More importantly, they won the game. Since then, he’s been a staple of the Lakers roster, and a fantastic story of triumph for a foreign kid in the NBA.
In the last 18 games, Zubac has gotten 20 minutes a night. He’s been scoring inside efficiently. He can threaten the offensive glass. He’s been a surprising rim protector and has a nice feel for getting blocks. Due to his strong play over the last 18 games, he now has Per 36 numbers on the season of 20 points, 11 rebounds, and 2 blocks on 71% shooting at the rim.
This is an awesome story for the Lakers, because he has gone from non-asset pet project of the Lakers’ to an actual trade chip with a solid future. The most important piece of Zubac’s playstyle is that he is one of the very few players in the league that can counter a switching defense with fundamental post offense. He has made moves on players like Kevin Durant, Clint Capela, and other stars. When he gets a guard switched onto him it’s game over. He’s simply too big at 7’1” and 250 lbs.
He has soft hands, quick feet, slick post moves, and can set solid picks. What’s also key is that he has looked serviceable as a rim protector. His sheer size and intelligence is enough to hinder assaults on the rim by small players.
Zubac has been found money for LA, and there is reportedly a possibility that New Orleans would like to have Zubac instead of Brandon Ingram, which is a swap LA would prefer 10 times out of 10. Brad Turner (@BA_Turner), a writer for the LA Times, tweeted on January 28th at 8:30 A.M. “Hearing from sources if Lakers want Anthony Davis, who has requested a trade, LA has to start the deal with Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Ivica Zubac, No. 1 [first round] pick.”
If that happens to be the case, the Lakers must be ecstatic at the idea of getting to keep Ingram rather than Zubac.
Svi Mykhailiuk, Moe Wagner, and Isaac Bonga
These last three guys would be simple throw-ins for any upcoming deal. Svi Mykhailiuk is a catch-and-shoot shooting guard. He’s had a rough year in LA in terms of shooting percentages, at just 32% from downtown. He is 6’8” and has some ball handling ability, but he is at this point not even a rotation level NBA player. He’s 21, and doesn’t have much upside, so the Pelicans would only want Svi as a sweetener. There could be a solid chance he turns into a poor man’s Buddy Hield.
As the Lakers’ first round pick from 2018, Moe Wagner has barely seen the court this year. He plays in garbage time and when injuries force LA’s hand. His future role is as a stretch center. He does have a nice shot, but his defensive woes keep him outside of any useful lineup this year. He has a chance at being a long-term rotation player, but he won’t push the needle on an Anthony Davis trade.
Isaac Bonga is the least known of the Lakers prospects. He is what people mean when they talk about a real long term project of a player. As an incredibly raw point-forward, Bonga’s potential is a complete mystery. He’s 6’8” and 180 lbs (Hey! That’s how much I weigh and I’m 6’3”!). His natural position is as a point guard, but he has the height and length to turn that into an advantage. He has only played in 7 games, and only gets a few minutes at a time to play. New Orleans would be smart to convince the Lakers to throw him into a deal. With several years to develop, there’s a small chance he can grow the way Brooklyn’s Caris LeVert and San Antonio’s Derrick White have.
To recap, the Lakers have a healthy range of very tradable assets. But they don’t quite have a superstar chip like Kristaps Porzingis, Jayson Tatum, or a top-5 draft pick in this year’s draft. Make no mistake, the Lakers’ young guns are good. Ingram, Ball, Kuzma, Hart, and Zubac will be in the league for ten years or more. The tricky part of this deal getting completed by the Lakers is hoping New Orleans feels the same way about the Lakers’ prospects as Los Angeles does.