Sunday night, it happened. The ball started moving too well on the other side, the Los Angeles Lakers gathered uncanny confidence quickly, and they stopped missing shots in a crucial third quarter. Role-players like Christian Wood dusted themselves off suddenly, and performed bodacious running dunks. It all started as it has, so many times—more times than anything has, in basketball, over the past 20 years—with LeBron James playing not just well, but like a globally pre-eminent conductor, masterfully pulling strings that few others can even see.
It amounted to a crucial and proud crosstown victory, 106-103 over the surging Los Angeles Clippers. This kind of thing hasn’t been happening often, though; the Lakers are just 4-10 since their In-Season Tournament triumph—five games behind those Clippers, eight out of first place, and only a half-game ahead of the similarly challenged Golden State Warriors for the final spot in the play-in round. James and Anthony Davis have been great, and more reliable than usual, but they haven’t had enough help in a league that’s more talented than ever.
Austin Reaves is a nice piece, but he isn’t, as was suggested by many over the summer, a true third wheel for a championship vehicle. And after him, the drop-off is steep. D’Angelo Russell is streaky as always, and the rest of the roster is a series of bets on upside that haven’t panned out like they did last year, during the team’s inspired run to the Western Conference Finals. Questions have been raised about head coach Darvin Ham, but it doesn’t seem like he has great stuff to work with, so talks of a big change via the trade market have only intensified.
The most obvious name, already being said in your head, is Zach LaVine. His own Chicago Bulls have played much better without him this season, looking ready for their post-LaVine era as Coby White has emerged as a productive, resilient, galvanizing leader in his fifth season. LaVine’s contract is massive, though, and doubts about both his health and willingness to fit into a system have led to diminished enthusiasm on the Lakers’ part to trade for him. LaVine has recently been reintroduced into Chicago’s lineup, perhaps as an opportunity for him to mollify those concerns, and how the next week shakes out could very well determine whether a deal gets done.
How well will LaVine play for a changed Bulls outfit, and how will the Lakers fare over their ongoing homestand, which might be essential to keeping their season alive? Small samples of play are not generally supposed to dictate whether a deal of this magnitude gets done or not, but with James, newly 39 years old, there may not be any large samples left, and the talent upgrades that present themselves right now may be the only ones that matter. Many have focused, and will focus, on the fact that LaVine shares an agent with James, but the more important truth is that he’s the best player the Lakers can bring in at this urgent moment.
LaVine’s fit with Davis and James is, theoretically, incredible. He is not the absolutely optimal complement to the duo, but that supplement isn’t available. And it isn’t hard to imagine him joining a long tradition of mid-season acquisitions who experience The LeBron Boost: not only does James tend to myriad on-court responsibilities that previously inhibited many players who join him, but he has the stature to do it while not making you worry about your own reputational standing. No one can be critiqued or belittled for deferring to James, whose strategic management is historic, and playing off of his gravity is tremendously liberating for score-first players like LaVine.
From the Bulls’ side of things, it makes perfect sense to move on from LaVine, who’s been through too many rough years with the organization at this point, and isn’t the right veteran to foster White’s rise, or the development of Patrick Williams, Ayo Dosunmu, Dalen Terry, and whoever the team drafts this summer. The Bulls seem more committed to Nikola Vucevic and Alex Caruso, as win-now players who also give works-in-progress a lot to work with—Caruso as an off-ball player who’s become one of the game’s great defensive tutors, and Vucevic as a dynamic offensive hub who proficiently hits cutters for layups and identifies when missed rotations lead to open threes.
It is not an ideal scenario for either the Lakers or the Bulls—not now, and not after they potentially make this trade. But there aren’t superior options on the table, or even on the horizon, and with each day it seems likelier that they’ll take each other to the dance before all other suitors are spoken for. Both strapped with bundles of contracts, injuries, and other limitations, they need each other to widen the margins of their possibilities, even if those prospects don’t extend to championship contention. If LaVine is traded to the Lakers, it will be a loud event, but only because of market size; this looming deal is, in reality, a humble bit of reorganization.