Newsletter: Lakers! Breaking down the Isaiah Thomas trade
Hi, this is Tania Ganguli, Lakers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, with your Lakers newsletter.
Thanks to all of you who sent me questions last week, please keep them coming. I’ll answer them at the bottom of each newsletter.
Thursday morning caught me by surprise, I’ll admit.
There was a sentiment around the league that teams were reluctant to help the Lakers clear the salary cap space they would need in order to achieve their desired free agent haul this summer or next.
When it came down to it, there were two things the Lakers coveted most during this trade season — salary cap space and a first-round draft pick. If they could get those elements in a deal, their ears were open. And they got them, but they had to give up two players who had been playing really well in recent weeks.
Just hours before the trade deadline, the Lakers sent Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson to Cleveland in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye (both on expiring contracts) and a first-round draft pick. So now the Lakers have a first-round draft pick and they don’t have Clarkson’s and Nance’s contracts on the books eating up salary cap space for the next two seasons.
That trade was a reminder to you, me and the whole NBA that the Lakers still plan on signing superstars and that they still plan on being competitive for a championship very soon.
Of course the trade also opened up one very interesting new storyline with this team.
Can this be a win/win for the Lakers and Isaiah Thomas?
It’s no secret that Thomas was not in a great situation in Cleveland. The Celtics traded him there after he gave up his body for their playoff run. When he got to Cleveland, he was recovering from a hip injury that seemed to affect one of his best attributes — his quickness. His shooting numbers were uncharacteristically low, though there was a small sample size as he’d just played 15 games.
He wasn’t shy about addressing problems with the team, and that didn’t always go over well with his new teammates. That locker room had become a generally dysfunctional place, which is part of what the Cavaliers were trying to fix with a rash of trades just before the deadline.
Thomas was attractive to the Lakers in part because he is on the last year of his contract, which will free up some salary cap space for the Lakers this summer. But if it were just about that, the Lakers could have bought out Thomas’ contract and let him find a different home.
They want him on the team. They want him around to help mentor Lonzo Ball — Ball hasn’t had a veteran point guard on his team all year. They want him around to help alleviate some of the stress placed on the roster by Ball’s injuries. Thomas is 29, which is at least five years older than any of the other Lakers’ point guards.
That’s what the Lakers get from acquiring Thomas.
What does Thomas get?
He gets away from what was a toxic situation in Cleveland. He gets a chance to play on a team that suits his style with its emphasis on pace. Time will tell how well he adjusts, but he had an impressive start with a 16-point first half off the bench. And both of those things could improve his stock heading into free agency next year.
So far, Thomas has gracefully accepted Luke Walton’s decision to bring him off the bench. Keep in mind, though, that throughout his career, Thomas has thrived in situations where he’s had to prove himself.
Since last we spoke
—Our Bill Plaschke checked in with Luol Deng and offered a great look into what life is like right now for Deng.
—Ball spoke to the media for the first time since Jan. 15 and addressed his progress with his knee injury. He admitted that he did not expect it to be as serious as it turned out to be.
—Julius Randle survived the trade deadline, didn’t let it bother him and is playing some of the best basketball he’s ever played.
Question of the week
Before the trade deadline, reader Tim Riter asked: “Rumors abound about possible trades for Julius, Larry, or Jordan. However, the young core is developing together, which many possible free agents have noticed. So, the question. Would the Lakers be more attractive to free agents by keeping the young core and trading or letting go KCP and Brook? And/or stretching Deng?”
This remains a relevant discussion even after the departure of Nance and Clarkson. We might get somewhat of an answer in the next few months. Are Clarkson and Nance going to be solid role players that help the Cavaliers in their quest to get LeBron James another championship?
Some insight into the Lakers’ thinking: They essentially have their players in tiers. There is the untouchable tier that includes Brandon Ingram, Ball and Kyle Kuzma. Lakers officials like Nance, Clarkson and Randle, but they also consider them assets that would be attractive to other teams but would not set back their own development if they moved on. It’s a balance and we won’t immediately know if they’re right. This much remains true: No matter which stars they bring into the fold, they’ll need a strong group of role players to then turn into championship contenders. Through his play lately, Randle has been making a case for himself as someone who should stick around.
As for the second part of the question, those three veterans mentioned are most likely not part of the Lakers’ future. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is on a one-year deal that was designed to give the Lakers a player that could help their shooting and defense and also allow Caldwell-Pope to hit the market again in a year. Brook Lopez is in the final year of his contract and since I made such a big deal of his struggles, he’s actually played much better. It’s likely neither player will return to the Lakers next season.
They might waive and stretch Deng, which would mean splitting the salary cap hit over several years, but only if they need the cap space. Right now the Lakers have enough cap space to sign one free agent to a maximum deal without making any other moves. If they can get two stars this summer, they’ll need to stretch Deng’s contract. If they can’t, they might not feel an urgency to do so.
That’s all for now. We’ll be back after the All-Star break.
All times Pacific
Wednesday at New Orleans, 5 p.m.
Thursday at Minnesota, 6 p.m., TNT
Until next time
All things Lakers, all the time.
Get all the Lakers news you need in Dan Woike's weekly newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.