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LOS ANGELES — And then there was one.
The most recent departure is Ivica Zubac, a promising 21-year-old center who gave the Lakers huge performances in key games against the Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder and New Orleans Pelicans. In his place is a serviceable role player in Mike Muscala, a stretch forward shooting just 34.2 percent from three this season.
Why? Nobody’s sure.
At last week’s trade deadline, the Lakers sent Zubac and Michael Beasley to the Los Angeles Clippers—who are giddy to have a young, promising 7-footer on their roster in Zubac—essentially for free. Muscala was a throw-in for the Clippers in the blockbuster deal that sent Tobias Harris to the Philadelphia 76ers. They’ve since waived Beasley.
You can safely add Zubac to the list of young players the Lakers likely punted on too early.
For Johnson and Pelinka, this could be about building a roster that’s purely their own. They clearly haven’t prioritized the players they didn’t acquire (which doesn’t necessarily bode well for coach Luke Walton, who was hired by former general manager Mitch Kupchak). But they’re also quick to move young pieces they previously drafted, such as Thomas Bryant and Svi Mykhailiuk.
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Never mind that Muscala didn’t do much in his Lakers debut Sunday, a 143-120 no-defense loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. Chalk that up to lack of practice time, unfamiliarity in the team’s offense and an elite opponent.
It’s true the Lakers needed to add shooting, and with the arrival of LeBron James over the summer, Johnson and Pelinka are trying to put a championship roster together posthaste. They don’t have time to wait for prospects like Mykhailiuk to perfect their craft. It’s the same mindset that explains why Johnson offered his entire young core to the Pelicans for All-Star Anthony Davis last week.
But if the Lakers plan to keep the requisite cap room to offer players like Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard or Klay Thompson (among others) a maximum salary, keeping Zubac makes sense.
Neither Zubac nor Mykhailiuk were under guaranteed contracts in July. Zubac will be a restricted free agent with a meager cap hold of $1.9 million (just $1 million more than an empty roster charge of almost $900,000). Mykhailiuk will earn a non-guaranteed $1.4 million next season, which would have only taken up roughly $520,000 of the Lakers’ space.
Maybe Los Angeles will need every bit of the combined $1.5 million in cap space that Zubac and Mykhailiuk would have occupied this summer, but they won’t know until July (and the Lakers could have let both go before the end of June).
Meanwhile, Reggie Bullock has a $4.8 million cap hold, and Muscala’s is near twice that figure at $9.5 million. If the Lakers do need some cap space but are able to squeeze in Bullock on a new deal, that might justify sending off Mykhailiuk and a 2021 second-rounder. But what about Muscala, who is likely a rental to help the Lakers make and compete in the playoffs?
Then there’s the reality of the Lakers’ likely playoff matchup, assuming they squeeze into the eighth seed. Zubac proved to be a handful for the Warriors, who could be the Lakers’ first-round matchup.
That’s assuming they even make the playoffs. The Clippers will try to hold off the Lakers from the eighth seed in the Western Conference with Zubac. He’s already done some damage, contributing 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in his debut in a massive 123-112 comeback against the Boston Celtics on Saturday.
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At center, the Lakers still have JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler. Both are capable veterans, and McGee has been productive this season with averages of 11.2 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in 21.8 minutes per game. At 36 years old, Chandler’s 17.7 minutes per contest are about as many as he can handle.
Walton can try to use Muscala to fill the available minutes, but will he be significantly more productive than rookie Moritz Wagner, who has begun to show signs that he’s ready to contribute after a slow start? Wagner with Zubac makes more sense than Muscala and Wagner, given they’re similar in playing style.
But as noted, Johnson and Pelinka don’t seem to be in the player-development business. If that holds true, Ingram may be the next to go, along with Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart, as the quest for another superstar goes on.
Bullock should be more productive than the inexperienced Mykhailiuk through the rest of the season, but will Muscala prove more valuable than Zubac?
The initial estimation is no, he won’t, but Muscala has another 26 games to prove himself—more if he can help the Lakers (28-28) catch two of the Sacramento Kings (30-26), San Antonio Spurs (32-26) and Clippers (31-26) for a postseason berth.
As the Lakers go star-chasing, Muscala looks like a short-term fix, whereas Zubac may be an inexpensive, long-term contributor in Los Angeles—just now with the Clippers.