Can Lakers benefit as teams tank for Victor Wembanyama?

Editor’s note: This is the Monday Oct. 10 edition of the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

In the wake of Victor Wembanyama’s eye-opening American exhibitions, a handful of NBA teams are dreaming of winning the draft lottery and handing the 7-foot-3 center their jersey.

The Lakers are not one of those teams.

By virtue of the Anthony Davis trade, the Lakers gave New Orleans the right to trade picks in 2023. So even if everything went south this season, the Lakers missed the playoffs and unexpectedly won the first overall pick, the Pelicans would be waiting to swoop in.

So why, then, were more than half a dozen Lakers front office officials – including Rob Pelinka, Joey Buss and Jesse Buss – sitting in bleachers in Henderson, Nev., watching a prospect they’ll never be able to draft? One, of course, it’s good business practice to scout the best players. Two, there was more than one prospect on the floor.

And three? The chase for Wembanyama could play right into their strategy for Russell Westbrook and becoming a contender this season.

The Lakers’ preseason discourse has been dominated by a second chance for the Big Three: Under Darvin Ham, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Westbrook are getting another crack at being a superteam. But dating back to last year’s trade deadline, the Lakers haven’t stopped considering trading Westbrook — and as reported around the league, they got very close to executing a deal.

Sources confirmed to Southern California News Group that the Lakers got deep into talks with the Utah Jazz and Indiana Pacers over the summer about potential swaps involving Westbrook. In Utah, a deal could have netted Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, and one of the Jazz’s lesser 2023 picks it received from shipping off Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell (the Jazz eventually traded Bogdanovic to Detroit). With Indiana, it’s now well-established that the Lakers have looked at adding Buddy Hield and Myles Turner.

One of the sticking points in each is the draft compensation the Lakers would have to send back: Two first-round picks in 2027 and 2029. The Jazz are riding high on their trade of Gobert, for which they netted five first-round picks, and view the deal as setting the market for draft compensation. With the Pacers, a person with knowledge of the negotiations told SCNG that the franchise has been reluctant to trade players that would bottom out the franchise into a full-blown tank without picks to help ease the blow.

If the Lakers saw a deal they liked between these two, they would have done it. General manager Rob Pelinka made this crystal clear (even though he unconvincingly qualified that he wasn’t necessarily talking about Westbrook) when he said: “We will do everything we can, picks included to make deals to give us a chance to help LeBron get to the end.

While the Lakers have historically landed great players in free agency – James included – the NBA has changed since the last Collective Bargaining Agreement. It is less common for the best players to hit the open market as they once did; teams now try to trade superstars while they’re still under contract to get some return for losing them. The way of the NBA now is to have picks and well-structured contracts ready to trade for unhappy (or just available) stars on max deals: This is how the Lakers got Davis, and also how deals have gone in recent years for Paul George, James Harden, Chris Paul, Gobert and more.

So it makes sense that the Lakers, though they’re traditionally a desirable destination, want to keep their powder dry. It seems less likely that they’ll use those 2027 and 2029 picks in those drafts than wait for a bigger swing than the one they’ve already got.

The market can change. And that’s where the Wembanyama chase comes in.

ESPN reported that the craze for the Frenchman could create a “race to the bottom like we’ve never seen.” Tanking is supposedly frowned upon in the league, but obviously it happens. Teams already on the outside of the playoff picture will weaken their rosters even more. Teams that start out poorly in the first month or two of the season may surrender to their fate more quickly. If you’re one of the worst teams in the league, having a higher percentage of landing Wembanyama might be more palatable than winning 35 games instead of 20.

In the midst of this chaos, teams with valuable, veteran pieces may be looking to unload. When that happens, the Lakers want to be ready to take calls. Salary matching Westbrook’s $47.1 million deal is still difficult, but with the right contracts, the Lakers are betting that competition to tank might improve their market and cause other teams to be less demanding for draft compensation.

The calculated risk of another season with Westbrook is that the 33-year-old can re-establish some of his trade value. One rival team executive told SCNG that the Lakers expressed to other front offices that Westbrook’s $47.1 million expiring deal would gain value closer to the trade deadline for teams looking to create cap room. So far, Westbrook has played along despite an obviously tenuous position, telling coach Darvin Ham and the public at large that he’s ready to do what it takes to win. As long as Westbrook and the Lakers continue down that track, both could wind up in a stronger position than they were in this summer – especially if teams are looking to tank.

But it’s a risk for a reason: The Lakers are also facing a tough opening slate that includes Golden State, Denver (twice), Minnesota and the Clippers. By December, they’ll be in a gauntlet that has 12 of 16 games on the road. If they’re not at least holding their own in the West and on the path to the playoffs, that could make them even more desperate to do a deal to change up the roster.

From the Lakers’ perspective, Wembanyama’s showing was a great boon to their outlook, and expected No. 2 pick Scoot Henderson also had a strong game that should make teams interested in improving their draft position this summer. The three teams with the worst record all have a 14% chance of landing the No. 1 pick. Even at sixth-worst, that team has better than 18% odds to move up into the top 2 of the lottery under the NBA’s recently reworked “flattened” system, potentially increasing the appeal of tryingto lose.

The Lakers, on the other hand, are one of the teams that – no matter what – are going to be motivated to win. With James re-extended, they know their window is open for only so much longer, and as Pelinka has indicated, they’re willing to do whatever it takes to give themselves the best possible chance to compete.

Even if that strategy, for now, is to wait.

– Kyle Goon

Editor’s note: Thanks for reading the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

Related Articles

Lakers |

Lakers top Warriors as Anthony Davis scores 28 points

Lakers |

Lakers’ Russell Westbrook adjusting to another new system

Lakers |

Meet Victor Wembanyama, the NBA’s Next Really Big Thing

Lakers |

LeBron James: Viva Las Vegas for NBA expansion

Lakers |

Lakers showcase energetic small-ball lineups despite Anthony Davis’ absence

Share the Post:

Related Posts