The Celtics vs. Lakers rivalry will take center stage on Saturday night in what may be the final game of the season that holds any kind of meaning for LeBron James and company. Luke Walton's team has been in a complete freefall since failing to trade for Anthony Davis at the trade deadline, dropping eight of their last ten games to plummet out of playoff contention (6.5 games back with 17 to play).
The underwhelming campaign will mark the sixth straight year the Lakers have missed the playoffs, the fourth-longest drought in the NBA. Needless to say, changes are coming in LA and they probably start with head coach Walton this offseason. However, the roster construction is a bigger issue for this group. They clearly need some star power to pair with James as he enters the final years of his prime and the sense of urgency will be higher than ever after this debacle in the final two months of the season. For as rocky as the Celtics season has been to this point, Brad Stevens (indirectly) pointed out the other day that it could be worse for Boston: They could be the Lakers.
“Well first of all, in the big picture, I’d say there’s probably a lot of teams that would trade places with us in this season,” Stevens said. “We’re still in a position where we’re going to end up having a chance to control playing in the playoffs and those types of things.”
The Lakers inability to salvage their season in the postseason sets up for a fascinating duel between the two rival franchises off the floor when it comes to the upcoming pursuit of Davis. The field for acquiring the All-Star has appeared to thin a bit as the Sixers used a number of important future assets to overpay for Tobias Harris at the trade deadline, essentially taking them out of the running for Davis unless they are willing to put a star-type name (Ben Simmons) on the table. Given the fact that Simmons shares an agent with Davis (Rich Paul) that seems unlikely. An early disappointing playoff exit for another franchise could cause one to get aggressive for a year rental of Davis, but this is looking more and more like it will be the Celtics and Lakers battling for one of the ten best players in the league this June and July, barring some lottery luck for the Knicks.
There’s no question that the Celtics have the overall edge in assets at the moment to top the Lakers in any hypothetical offer. That fact in itself is part of the reason the Pelicans declined to pull the trigger on the move ahead of the deadline after Davis made his demand. Barring a very deep playoff run by this current core, the Celtics are expected to be very aggressive in acquiring Davis, a trade target they have been planning for years to obtain. Yet, the more important question for Boston is just how much of their draft stash they will have to give up in order to top the Lakers capital this summer and will Jayson Tatum be needed in order to do it? BostonSportsJournal.com spoke with numerous scouts to help preview how the league views the type of assets available for both sides right now and how the C’s playoff run and some Lakers tanking could cause a shift in the balance of assets as the summer approaches.
Top player assets ranked in order:
Brandon Ingram (signed through 2019-20 before restricted free agency)
Kyle Kuzma (signed through 2020-21 before RFA)
Lonzo Ball (signed through 2020-21 before RFA)
Josh Hart (signed through 2020-21 before RFA)
Mo Wagner (signed through 2021-22 before RFA)
Overview: Like Boston, some key player assets in LA have taken a step backward in value thus far in 2018-19. Brandon Ingram remains the guy with the most upside among this group but amid an encouraging uptick in PPG (18.3) and FTA per game (5.6), there have been a number of red flags that remain in his game. His 3-point shooting has dipped to 33 percent on the year and his stats across the board have taken hits (assists, rebounds) after the arrival of LeBron James. The fact that Ingram has routinely struggled with shooting at the line despite his high volume (67 percent) is a discouraging sign for the Lakers in today’s NBA. He is taken fewer 3s than ever and making them at a below average clip, making him a high volume but inefficient scorer on the hole, while so many other aspects of his game are also underwhelming (poor passer, long defender that lacks awareness). As a 21-year-old, there is plenty of room for growth here, but is Ingram guaranteed to be an All-Star in this league? His current profile leaves uncertainty on that front.
The Lakers announced on Saturday afternoon that Ingram's season is also over after being diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis in his right arm this week. It's a serious condition that involves several months of treatment so it is a tough break for both the player and franchise. Ingram is expected to make a full recovery but that condition will cast a shadow over him when it comes to trade negotiations this summer.
Kyle Kuzma (18.8 PPG) remains the best offensive player of the Lakers’ bunch right now but his upside is somewhat limited at age 23 and defense is a weakness for him. He is a bucket getter around the basket but his 3-point shooting has plummeted (31.2 percent) in year two, making him yet another prospect with a questionable jumper from deep and the midrange. Given his subpar rebounding for his size and defensive question marks, Kuzma projects to be no better than an above-average starter right now. He’s going to get you points, but he’s going to give plenty back on the other end as well.
While the trajectories of Kuzma and Ingram have stayed slow and steady, injuries have completely derailed the development of Lonzo Ball this year. The 2017 No. 2 overall pick has played just 45 games this year and has not played since January 21st due to an ankle injury. He may not return this year either according to the Lakers organization, given him no way to improve the stock of the 21-year-old who is shooting just 40 percent from the field and 32 percent from 3-point range this year. Ball is a great passer, solid defender and good rebounder for his size but his offensive warts are extremely clear and reminiscent of Rajon Rondo early in his career. He takes and doesn’t make a lot of 3s (4.9 per game), he can’t hit free throws (45 percent in career) and his turnover rate is absurdly high for a point guard.
Josh Hart is a respectable reserve guard who also struggles with shooting (33 percent). Sensing a theme here? He has been in and out of Walton’s rotation at various points this year, making the 24-year-old an extra sweetener in any offer but not much more than that. Wagner was out of the rotation all year and is a borderline NBA player it looks like.
Collectively, this group couldn’t get the Lakers to the playoffs despite having one of the league’s best players suiting up with them for the majority of the year. There was a flawed roster around them and injuries did play a factor, but it’s hard to see the Pelicans getting overly excited about any of the pieces in this group given how this season has played out. No one is going to help their value much either by putting up empty stats while being out of a playoff race in the final 18 games. All of this bodes well for Boston.
Top player assets ranked in order