As the basketball world waits and wonders whether the 2019-20 season will ever be salvaged, another question specifically hangs over the Los Angeles Lakers.
It’s one that many feel they’ve needed to address ever since the fateful day in 2018 when one LeBron James agreed to come west and rescue the floundering franchise.
How do the Lakers extend their championship window beyond the next year or two?
While all of us should be showering praise upon James for continuing his usual phenomenal level of play in Year 17, Lakers fans can’t help but be a bit concerned about the future.
James is 35, and although it may not seem like it on the court, he is a mortal human being like the rest of us. Sooner or later, his level of play will start to decline. It’s just a question of whether it will fall off a cliff, a la Kobe Bryant, or whether he’ll age gracefully like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The best way the Lakers can help James age gracefully is by giving him help in the backcourt. For the first time in his career, the Akron, Ohio native is playing point guard, on a fast-break team nonetheless.
With limited trade assets, acquiring such a player will be tough. But maybe, just maybe, the answer to helping James’ biological clock tick more slowly lies about 700 miles to the northeast.
Could Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell be that answer?
Why Mitchell Could Be Available
By all accounts, until recently, the chances of the Jazz even considering trading Mitchell were about as high as Sylvester the Cat eating Tweety. The University of Louisville product was averaging 24.2 points and 4.2 assists per game when the 2019-20 season was suspended.
He’s been as big a factor as anyone in helping the Jazz to a 41-23 record, good enough for fourth place in the Western Conference.
But recently, there have been reports of a rift between him and fellow All-Star Rudy Gobert.
Both tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and apparently Mitchell didn’t like Gobert’s cavalier attitude towards the emerging pandemic when he mockingly touched all the microphones and recording devices at a media session.
According to reports, Gobert is angling for a supermax contract extension, even though a player of his caliber probably doesn’t warrant a contract of that size.
With both going into the final years of their respective contracts next season, could the Jazz be forced to choose between these two cornerstones?
Mike Conley, another key member of the team, would also be a free agent in the summer of 2021, complicating the math of keeping this Jazz team together.
How Could Mitchell Help the Lakers?
Mitchell is a 6-foot-1 guard with great ball-handling and one-on-one skills. He can penetrate, as well as break off his defender with a variety of moves off the dribble.
He’s also a solid 3-point shooter, with an accuracy of 36.4 percent so far this season.
Despite his modest stature, he has the ability and tendency to throw down nasty slam dunks. He’s even been a favorite target among his teammates for alley-oop dunks.
Mitchell may not be the greatest defensive player in the league, but he’s pretty good and working to get better. He ranks 47th among 137 shooting guards in defensive RPM this season, and his elite 6-foot-10 wingspan gives him the ability to really bother opposing players on the perimeter.
With his ability to make things happen as a scorer and playmaker in both the half court and in transition, Mitchell can take plenty of pressure off James.
As the four-time MVP continues to age, the Lakers need to gradually ease his workload, and Mitchell could ensure that the team continues to win at a torrid clip as they practice in-game “load management” with James.
Once James is no longer an elite player, or when he leaves the Lakers, Mitchell could keep the Lakers at or near the top of the league. That’s as long as, of course, Anthony Davis decides to continue wearing the Purple and Gold for years to come.
Why a Mitchell Trade to the Lakers Is Actually Feasible
Oftentimes, trading for an All-Star is difficult to do in the NBA due to the fact that salaries have to match. This often requires a team to throw in multiple useful players to make the deal work under league rules.
Mitchell, on the other hand, is still under his rookie contract, and is due just over $5 million next season.
This would help the Lakers, who, other than Kyle Kuzma, have a lack of attractive assets. Kuzma himself is also on his rookie contract, which would make trading for a higher-salaried player very difficult.
A team like the Jazz who may find itself in the position of having to trade an All-Star with a small contract may try to make the receiving team take on a bad contract. It’s a sneaky way of making the other team cough up more in return for said All-Star.
However, the Jazz don’t really have a player like that, other than perhaps, to a certain extent, Jordan Clarkson. However, Clarkson has played well since coming to Utah in a trade several weeks ago, and is now a key member of the Jazz’s bench.
If the Jazz ever, low and behold, look to move Mitchell, maybe he could be an ideal target of the Lakers after all.