July 5, 2022

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The Sports Fanatics

Anthony Davis injury: Five big men Lakers could pursue on trade market to fill in for absent star

There’s not exactly a good time to lose your All-NBA big man, but the Los Angeles Lakers really couldn’t have asked for worse timing on Anthony Davis’ latest injury. The NBA’s recent COVID-19 outbreak has desperate teams nabbing every worthwhile free agent, so it’s not as though the Lakers can easily look to the free-agent pool to find a replacement center while Davis recovers for the next month or so. Their own internal options aren’t particularly appealing either. DeAndre Jordan lost his spot in the rotation for good reason before desperation got him minutes back. Dwight Howard is currently out due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Two-way rookie Jay Huff has played just 13 minutes this season. 

The one saving grace for the Lakers is the date on the calendar. With Dec. 15 now in the rearview mirror, the majority of NBA players are now trade-eligible. The Lakers have neither the assets nor the matching salary to swing a blockbuster for a new big man, but beggars can’t be choosers. A reliable 15 minutes per night in the frontcourt would be enormously valuable right now. So let’s explore what’s realistically out there on the trade market right now for a package of second-round picks and minimal matching salary (let’s say no more than two minimum-salaried Lakers going out, which would allow the Lakers to absorb around $4.3 million in salary). Given the COVID situation that the entire league is facing right now, teams very well might decide to hoard their players and eschew trades entirely until they can more comfortably rely on their players to be available. The Lakers might just be out of luck if that’s the case, but these five players at least make a modicum of sense as hypothetical trade targets. 

Here’s the pie in the sky target. Mitchell Robinson is absolutely overqualified for injury-replacement trade target status, and the New York Knicks almost certainly wouldn’t take a package of second-round picks back for him even considering his underwhelming season. Even if they would, it’s worth noting that Robinson recently fired Rich Paul as his agent, so whatever influence Klutch Sports holds in the front office would likely be used against him, and he’s having arguably his worst season as a pro after gaining 20 pounds in the offseason. He’s still worth a phone call, though, for the following reasons:

  • Robinson recently lost his starting job in New York to Nerlens Noel. The Knicks also have reigning All-NBA power forward Julius Randle, recent draft picks Obi Toppin and Jericho Sims, and long-time Tom Thibodeau favorite Taj Gibson in the front-court.
  • Robinson has recently posted cryptic messages on social media complaining about his role.
  • Robinson is going to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. If he wants to get a hefty contract, it is in his best interest to make sure that he ends the season on a team that plans to make use of his Bird Rights in order to retain him because there is very little cap space available around the league. That might be the Knicks, but if it’s not, he might prefer a trade. 
  • The Lakers were heavily linked to Robinson during the pre-draft process in 2018. There were even reports that they made him a promise with the No. 25 overall pick. That pick comes with its own messy history, as there was reportedly dissension within the front office between Mo Wagner, whom they actually picked, and Omari Spellman, whom Lakers scouts reportedly preferred. Robinson fell to No. 36. 

So… there’s some smoke here. It’s worth making a phone call to find out if there’s any fire. The Knicks could almost certainly get more than the Lakers would be able to offer if they put Robinson out there, and if Robinson wants a bigger offensive role, he’s probably not going to find it in Los Angeles. But the Lakers sorely need athletic upside in the frontcourt and Robinson provides a boatload of it. He’s also playing for a new contract, so any acquiring team should expect him to do his best to fit in. Robinson probably couldn’t play alongside Davis and Russell Westbrook given his very traditional offensive role as a non-shooting roller and rebounder, but if he recaptures his old defensive form, he could make a world of difference on that end of the floor. 

Here’s where the more realistic targets come into play. The Lakers had Damian Jones in the building briefly last season, but let him go to make way for Andre Drummond on the buyout market. They almost immediately regretted that decision. Drummond underwhelmed. His presence alienated Marc Gasol. Jones thrived in an expanded role in Sacramento. That role has since shrunk, though. He’s appeared in only 14 games for the Kings this season, and the Kings have a surprisingly crowded frontcourt now that Tristan Thompson is in town and Marvin Bagley III has re-emerged as a rotation player. The Kings are so bogged down by the COVID protocols that they’re likely at least a week away from even considering a deal, but if they aren’t going to use Jones, grabbing a draft pick for him makes plenty of sense. 

But after this offseason’s Buddy Hield debacle, the Kings probably aren’t going to be too eager to help the Lakers. Their decision to back out of a deal that was, by all accounts, nearly finished reportedly left Kings management “steaming.” The NBA is a relationship business. Rob Pelinka knows that well as a former agent, and the Lakers have a number of fruitful relationships around the league. The Wizards, for instance, helped them create max cap space in 2020, so the Lakers turned around and helped them land Spencer Dinwiddie in 2021 without getting anything in return. The Kings might not be willing to play ball here.

3. Mo Wagner

We’re sticking with former Lakers here but otherwise going in a very different direction. Wagner was a cap casualty as the Lakers scrambled to create max cap space in 2020 and he’s struggled to catch on anywhere since. The Magic are his fourth NBA team, and though his role is minor, it’s been fairly consistent, and with his brother Franz in place as a core piece of Orlando’s future, the Magic probably wouldn’t deal him for scraps. Still, Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr. (when healthy) are clearly ahead of him in the pecking order, and Robin Lopez is perfectly capable of playing more than he has for the Magic. 

Wagner shares very little in common with Jones or Robinson. They are archetypical centers, but Wagner is more of a stretch center. He’s struggled in that role for most of his NBA career, but he’s now up to 37 percent from behind the arc this season. He has untapped mobility defensively, so while he may not be much of a rim protector, Frank Vogel could surely find some more creative schematic uses for him. With or without Davis, this is the sort of big man the Lakers probably should have had on their bench from the get-go. He not only fits more easily alongside Westbrook but contrasts stylistically with Howard. The Lakers sorely lack lineup versatility, and Wagner could provide a bit of it.

The Hawks signed Gorgui Dieng primarily to hold them over at backup center until Onyeka Okongwu returned. Well… Onyeka Okongwu has returned, and it’s not as though Dieng has lit the world on fire in his place. His role has steadily shrunk all season, and now in his 30s, there’s no telling how much he actually has left to contribute to a winning team. At a bare minimum, the Hawks probably wouldn’t haggle too much over him. They’d probably welcome the salary savings of dealing him.

But Dieng, on a limited scale, has in the past filled that coveted unicorn role of the shot-blocking big man that can make 3-pointers. He’s made nearly 38 percent of his long-range attempts over the past three seasons, though the volume has been fairly limited. His defense has slipped a fair bit in that time, and if that’s a priority, the Lakers will probably look elsewhere. But the best version of Dieng can play with Westbrook and Davis on the floor, and there just aren’t that many bargain-basement centers that can say that. 

5. Whichever Dallas center is available

Jason Kidd may be using Kristaps Porzingis at power forward more than Rick Carlisle ever did, but that doesn’t mean he needs all of his centers. Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber are also using center minutes, and that has left very few for Willie Cauley-Stein, Boban Marjanovic and Moses Brown. The three have barely combined to play as many minutes (350) as DeAndre Jordan (314). 

The Lakers can’t exactly be picky here. Any of the three could play a role for them. Cauley-Stein’s mobility and verticality probably make him the most appealing of the three, but if they want to keep using small bench lineups with both James and Westbrook taking advantage of maximized spacing, Marjanovic could at least create some shots in the minutes they need to rest. Brown, a double-double machine for the desperate Thunder a year ago, probably has the most upside.