The Los Angeles Lakers didn’t have many trade chips to offer at the deadline. Russell Westbrook is now considered among the most negative assets in basketball when you combine his gargantuan contract with his declining play. Talen Horton-Tucker has had an extremely disappointing season. Kendrick Nunn hasn’t yet played this season due to injury. None of their minimum-salaried players hold much trade value due to their expiring contracts, and the only first-round pick they could legally offer was their 2027 selection.
One asset they could have wielded, though, is the financial might that comes with playing in the NBA‘s second-biggest market. The Lakers should have the capacity to outspend nearly any team in the NBA. Their reported 20-year pact with Spectrum will pay the Lakers an estimated $3 billion over the life of the deal, granting them significantly more local television revenue than most teams, and their position as a global brand in an enormous city opens the door for far more gate, merchandising and ancillary revenue as well.
But when the deadline arrived, the Lakers didn’t make a trade. Those basketball limitations surely played a role in what was available. But by all accounts, self-imposed financial limitations played a part as well. The Lakers, according to multiple reporters, did not seem especially eager to take on more salary.
“There was an iteration of the John Wall trade that included Christian Wood that would have involved more money,” ESPN’s Dave McMenamin said on the Brian Windhorst and the Hoop Collection Podcast. “I’ve been told from other sources in Houston that there was a message that the Lakers were not willing to take on more money.”
“That’s kind of the word around the league that the Lakers were making calls, if there was a trade that made sense, they would do it. I’ve heard it described as ‘maybe half-hearted efforts,’” ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne added on the same show. “They would do something if it was low-hanging fruit but they weren’t really willing to feel any pain, whether that was luxury tax money, whether that was more encumberment in the future, whether that was draft compensation. In other words, they called, they tried to do some things but there wasn’t a sense of the same kind of urgency I think you heard from the players the night of the Milwaukee game and especially after the Portland game.”
There are a number of perfectly reasonable basketball arguments against making a major trade at the deadline, especially as it pertains to deals centered around Wall. He has played 40 games in the past four seasons. Wood is a dynamic offensive center, but his skill set becomes somewhat redundant on a team with one of the few big men in Anthony Davis that’s better at the things that make him special in the first place. Holding onto their 2027 first-round pick to package with their 2029 selection in the offseason makes sense. Doing so because this season is already a lost cause is sadly hard to argue either.
But almost every move the Lakers have made since landing Russell Westbrook suggests that money factored heavily into their decision. They let Alex Caruso, maybe the best point-of-attack guard defender in the NBA this season, walk away from a roster devoid of point-of-attack defense over tax concerns. They made little effort to sign-and-trade Dennis Schroder to another point guard-needy team for assets. On a smaller scale, you could even argue that the deal they signed Nunn to was unnecessarily cheap. The taxpayer mid-level exception can pay a player up to $5,890,000 this season. The Lakers are paying Nunn an even $5 million. Saving money is nice, but it also limited the amount of matching salary they had to offer in possible trades. As inconsequential as $890,000 might seem in NBA terms, it could have proven pretty meaningful to a team with only two rostered players making anything between the max or the minimum.
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This isn’t to suggest outright cheapness. The Lakers are paying almost $200 million in combined salary and luxury tax payments. That figure just doesn’t look as daunting in context. The Lakers have the fifth-highest payroll in the NBA. Just ahead of them at No. 4 are the Milwaukee Bucks, who play in a much smaller market. The Golden State Warriors are spending well over $100 million more than the Lakers in salaries and taxes. The Lakers are spending quite a bit of money relative to the rest of the league, but they’re getting outmuscled in the financial arms race that the NBA’s best teams, even those without an estimated $150 million in local television revenue, almost have to participate in if they hope to sustain championship contention.
A direct swap of Wall and Wood for Westbrook would not quite be legal. The Lakers would need to send out around $3 million in extra salary. They could have done so with two minimum salaries, an addition they seemingly should have been interested in making in order to clear roster spots for the buyout market. Doing so would have cost the Lakers roughly $50 million in salary and tax payments combined. Swap in Nunn for those minimums and that figure drops to closer to $40 million. Put Horton-Tucker in for Nunn and we’re down to around $20 million. No iteration of this deal would have taken the Lakers to the historic payrolls Golden State and Brooklyn are paying for this season. Even the priciest would have barely gotten them to the roughly $250 million figure Steve Ballmer will pay for a Clippers team missing its two best players this season.
Ballmer has proven willing to spend whatever it takes to give the Clippers a competitive advantage even in the seasons in which they have no feasible chance at winning the championship. If the Lakers plan to win one any time soon, they are going to have to show the same commitment to spending that Ballmer has.