As the NBA trade deadline approaches on February 23, the Lakers have their ears open.
“We are active, yes,” General Manager Mitch Kupchak said. “We’re active every year. … Quite frankly compared to the last three or four years, we have a lot of talent on this roster that I think a lot of people have interest in — varying levels of interest. I would think there’s more meaningful discussions this year than there have been the last two or three years.”
Trades have been a big part of the way the Lakers have been built in the past. Kupchak noted in recent years the Lakers’ trade assets weren’t as plentiful. Kobe Bryant was not an option to be traded and players on one-year deals weren’t attractive to other teams.
Before the season, Kupchak didn’t rule out the possibility that a deal of some sort could change the complexion of the team. There’s a good chance that might not happen, but even as questions swirl about the structure of the front office, those conversations haven’t stopped.
Kupchack and Jim Buss, the Lakers’ executive vice president of basketball operations, are scheduled to meet with Magic Johnson next week. Johnson was recently hired as an advisor to the team. It’s unclear what impact the meeting will have on the Lakers’ trade plans, and Kupchak has declined to address the subject.
Veteran guards Nick Young and Lou Williams have frequently been the subject of trade speculation. The Lakers tried to trade Young last summer. Since then, Young clawed his way to a starting role.
Williams, who ranks fifth in the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring, has another year left on his contract, and Young has one year pending a player option left after this season. He could opt out of that year.
“I just play,” Williams said, when asked if he’d like to play for a contending team. “I’m a little old school in my approach. I play for the team that I have the jersey on for, so I don’t really deal in hypotheticals.”
And while Kupchak sees talks as more active than in years past, he left open the possibility that nothing happens, as negotiators do.
“A lot of it depends on your roster and what it looks like,” Kupchak said. “I really like this group; they get along really well together, the guys that are here as mentors and leaders are doing a great job. The young players are showing growth. So it’s all good.”
Timofey Mozgov slid into oblivion when Coach Luke Walton replaced the 7-foot-1, 275-pound center and forward Luol Deng in the first group with Tarik Black and Brandon Ingram.
“Right now,” Walton said going into this week, “he’s not in that top 10 rotation.”
Mozgov, who signed a four-year, $64-million deal last summer, finally brushed off the cobwebs Tuesday night, entering the first quarter of a 97-96 loss to Sacramento when Black picked up two early fouls. They were his first minutes since being removed from the starting lineup on Feb. 6.
“It’s kind of hard,” Mozgov said. “I could cause a problem because I want to play, but the coach’s decision has been made. I still have to be a professional and be ready for the game. ... It’s not about me. It’s not like I’m not ready to play. It’s a question for the coach.”
Walton stressed that Mozgov’s benching is not a punishment, just a way to see the younger players.
“He played well [Tuesday night], and going into the game, we knew he was our best guy to guard [Kings center DeMarcus] Cousins,” Walton said. “… But we already know he can do that. We have to see what [Ivica] Zubac can do, how T. Black handles someone bigger with that much skill. We have all the confidence in the world in Mozgov, we just want to see what the younger guys can do.”
The 6-11, 270-pound Cousins scored 16 of his 40 points in the fourth quarter Tuesday night, most of them coming against Larry Nance Jr., the 6-9, 230-pound reserve forward who took the loss hard.
“This one’s on me,” Nance wrote on Twitter after the game. “Gotta be better defensively down the stretch. Learn from it and keep moving forward.”
Walton appreciated the gesture but didn’t think it was necessary.
“Larry’s very critical of himself, to a fault,” Walton said. “He’s always trying to make the right plays, the right reads … sometimes he’s too hard on himself. You want guys to be hard on themselves, because that motivates you to get better, to work harder.
“I like guys taking accountability, but it’s not his fault at all. He was a big reason we were back in that game, and he was guarding one of the premier players in this league with nothing but small guys around him. It was a tough matchup.”
That was of little consolation to Nance.
“That’s just the way I am — I require a lot from myself,” he said. “When I don’t reach the expectations set by myself, I get upset, especially defensively. That’s why I felt like [Tuesday] night I should have done better.”
In its annual ranking of NBA franchises that was published Wednesday, Forbes valued the Lakers at $3 billion, up 11% from last season and the second-highest figure in the league behind the New York Knicks ($3.3 billion).