The Lakers might be better off trading for several role players before the trade deadline for several reasons. For starters, they would have more flexibility in terms of the salaries they are allowed to take on in a trade. For example, they can take back up to $58.9 million in salaries for Westbrook this season alone, nearly double the spending power they have in the upcoming offseason. This process would allow them to get much deeper than with cap space.
Not all players they acquire have to be under contract for next season as they can also re-sign expiring players with their Bird rights. They could then add another player with one of the MLE amounts. For comparison, the cap space route with the room MLE could realistically net the Lakers three total rotation players while the trade route could add more this season plus a more valuable player in the offseason with a higher MLE.
The Lakers would have to give up assets if they move any of their expiring players for significant upgrades to this season’s roster but the opportunity cost is low. Any such deal could just be a half measure so they have a justification to hold onto their two tradeable first-round picks for now. But if they take on unwanted salaries beyond this current season from other teams, they could potentially get some assets attached. Adding more draft picks or prospects gives them a better chance at upgrading the roster through trade later.
There are several teams that could be looking to get off long-term money ahead of the trade deadline. New York is open to moving Derrick Rose and Cam Reddish but also would probably like to get off Evan Fournier as well. Dallas might want to find new homes for Tim Hardaway Jr., Davis Bertansand JaVale McGee. Charlotte would probably like to offload Gordon Hayward and players like Terry Rozier, Kelly Oubre, Mason Plumleeand Jalen McDaniels are expected to receive interest.
These are just some hypothetical frameworks where the Lakers would be able to turn a combination of their expiring contracts for players that would eliminate their cap space for this summer. They could also help make the Lakers deeper this season and depending on the structure of the deal, save money against the luxury tax. A structure where they get assets attached would be worth while.
However, maximizing their payroll by trading their expiring contracts for as much salary as possible, signing someone with the MLE, and re-signing players like Austin Reaves and Lonnie Walker IV could put them deep into the tax next year. This path could have their luxury tax penalty approach 9 figures, but it gives them a much better chance at contending again.
One other issue if they head into the offseason as a cap space team is that they could miss out on possible trade opportunities. For example, if a player likes Zach LaVine or Bradley Beal were to become available, the Lakers would not have a chance to acquire them with their cap space. That’s because their $30 million in cap space won’t be enough to absorb such an expensive player.
While several of the trade candidates listed earlier may not be contributors, their contracts still have utility for salary matching in future trades. Such players would keep the Lakers in the mix to make a big trade in the offseason. If this path interests them they’ll need to load up on players under contract for 2023-24 ahead of the February 9 trade deadline. That’s because they won’t be able to move any of their players on expiring contracts once the deadline passes.
One alternative to this is trading Westbrook now in an uneven trade with the where they create a large trade exception. But that can cost them assets and any players they acquire within the trade exception can’t be aggregated in a trade for two months, meaning they could still miss out on July trade opportunities.