Trading Julius Randle and Clarkson for Championships
The Los Angeles Lakers and their fans have always shared a relentlessness toward winning championships. When you’re considered arguably the greatest franchise in the history of your sport, there comes a certain scepter you have to wield when sitting on the throne. In other words, “rebuilding” is simply not enough. With their young talents coming into their own while showing no signs of All-Star candidacy and MVP caliber players, the Lakers know they are currently years behind from reaching the finals, let alone making it to the playoffs.
When your organization is spearheaded by one of the game’s most beloved players, five-time champion Magic Johnson, the stakes become even higher, the scepter gets heavier and the spear even sharper. While the new Lakers front office has made it abundantly clear their goals are to have enough cap space to land two marquee free-agents this summer and continue to develop their core of young players, the uncertain future of their current assets are causing a rift in their rebuilding process.
Any follower of the NBA would agree just from the eye test that this year’s Laker squad is much improved from recent past. In reality, the team is currently on a seven-game slide down the L-column, with just 11 wins this season and on pace for just 25 wins – one worse than last season and on par for second worst in the entire league. To make matters even more austere, the Lakers just held a meeting to “clear the air” and allow players to take the floor to discuss their concerns and address the rumors surrounding the organization’s current business trajectory.
“Everybody on the team said something on how they feel,” Kyle Kuzma said.
“Hopefully we think about what we said to each other, what we said to the coaches, and that the coaches have listened to what we said.” – Brandon Ingram
We don’t know exactly what was said in that meeting, but we do know the Lakers’ players are frustrated. Two players in particular have felt the brunt of trade rumors: Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson. Free-agents, like Brook Lopez and Kentavious Cadwell-Pope, have found themselves on a team headed in the right direction but retained by contracts that are incompatible with the Lakers salary cap goals for next season. In other words, if the Lakers want to land two All-Star caliber free-agents, even if that means they trade for them this year or hope to entice them in the off-season, the Lakers would have to renounce all free-agents (including Randle) and get rid of Clarkson and Deng in some form. Ultimately, do the Lakers hold their young core intact and trust the process? Or do they start shopping their assets immediately to bring the franchise back to the promised land?
It was reported as recent as December 28th, 2017, by Los Angeles Times reporter Tania Ganguli, “The Lakers would love to trade Julius Randle,” and took several calls concerning him and Jordan Clarkson. Throughout their history the Lakers haven’t been afraid to move guys, trading Vlade Divac for Kobe’s draft rights, swapping a younger and future defensive MVP Marc Gasol for his older brother Pau, and the series of draft picks that landed LA Howard and Nash. They have also been a team that has attracted big time free-agents in their primes: Kareem, Shaq, and even players like Ron Artest. The Lakers have had both major success and major failures from this kind of management. One could argue the whole reason the Lakers have a new front office is because of the failings of such strategy.
What are you really betting on if you end up trading Jordan Clarkson and or Julius Randle? You’re betting on a homesick Paul George coming to Los Angeles; on DeMarcus Cousins and George being enough to entice LeBron James to join the team; but what consequences are you inheriting exactly? So when you’re asking a humble sports writer like myself: “should the Lakers trade Julius Randle? Should the Lakers trade Jordan Clarkson?” You’re really asking me if the Lakers should give up on their current rebuilding project and go all-in on free agents. You’re also asking if I believe the Lakers can land Paul George and or DeMarcus Cousins before this year’s all-star deadline by trading Randle, Clarkson, and potentially every player on the roster besides Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Kyle Kuzma. And finally, that somehow this entices LeBron James enough to come to Los Angeles and restore the Lakers back to championship contention.
In theory, if the Lakers could make that happen it reads like a basketball masterpiece painted by Michelangelo himself. Imagine a Lakers’ starting five of LeBron James, Paul George, Brandon Ingram, DeMarcus Cousins, and Lonzo Ball. Even just typing that team out on my keyboard gives me chills. To give some thoughts on who we would have to give up: Julius Randle, a do-it-all hustle player with a chip on his shoulder, a poor-man’s Draymond Green, and a $15-Million six-man of the year candidate in Jordan Clarkson, my heart tells me these two players deserve better than to be treated like squid bait in the NBA sea of free-agency. At the same time they are earning multi-million dollar deals and playing a kid’s game for a king’s ransom.
That being said, I’ve seen some things from Randle that make me believe he is expendable. For starters, for Randle to pout on the bench whenever he is not in the game, to purposely not get out of the way of his teammate Corey Brewer and barrel into him returning to the sidelines, for yelling at his coach for taking him out; it shows him as a potential locker room problem. But it is tough to ignore his play this season. He is arguably the Lakers best player, or at least the player that affects the game for the Lakers’ opponents the most. Seeing him run coast to coast and dunk the ball gets me off my seat every time. At the same time, he isn’t the best system player, isn’t the most mature and he doesn’t really have a 3-point threat like Draymond or the assisting and or play-making ability.
It’s unfortunate the rumors have affected his play. I think ultimately the Lakers are doing the right thing in shopping him around, they should not trade him unless they can also rid Deng’s contract or get a serious return that either guarantees the Lakers hit their cap-space endeavors, or provides them with a player who helps entice LeBron James.
For Clarkson, the Lakers only have so many assets. He is a tremendous combo guard and sixth man for the Lakers. Which begs the question, is is he a good player who is benefiting from a bad team? The only way I would support the Lakers trading Clarkson is similar to Randle: if it doesn’t help bring in George, Cousins or LeBron, his petite contract doesn’t do enough to impeach the cap-space problem by Deng’s contract. He may not be a off-the-bench scorer like Lou Williams or Eric Gordon, but he has scoring ability, is an outside threat, and has proven he can create his own shot and finish at the rim. Even so, like most sixth man candidates, they always seem to bounce around the league. If he truly is made in the sixth man mold, it may be inevitable just by the nature of the game.
The Lakers have a conundrum on their hands. In the end the team its not helping to develop their young guys with all these losses. At the same time there are some other free-agents next off-season the Lakers should consider. DeAndre Jordan would be the perfect pick N roll fit for Lonzo Ball. Rodney Hood is a scoring, 3-point shooting SF-SG, that if they lose KCP would be a formidable replacement. With George already homesick for LA the Lakers may be able to instead retain Randle and consider him a part of the dream team to entice LeBron and other big names. The Lakers are hopefully doing everything correctly behind closed doors. Magic has seen what a more patient home-grown strategy can yield with his Dodgers team across town. Still, hopefully the Lakers office is letting other big names know they want them in Los Angeles, while at the same time not making the same mistakes as recent past Lakers front offices. So long as it affects the Lakers and their play, none of this off-court drama is good for the team. These younger players have a hard time listening to the rumors. Whatever they decide to do, they better do it sooner than later. And if it doesn’t land Los Angeles marquee free-agents or King James himself, a bad trade scenarios like what brought Dwight Howard and Steve Nash could create an even greater destruction. The Lakers have very a very important few weeks ahead of them.