You may have noticed that, after an eight-game stretch in which he averaged 18.9 minutes and 7.5 points, earning praise from his coach and teammates, second-year Lakers forward Talen Horton-Tucker fell off considerably.
He played just three minutes in the win over New Orleans on Janjuary 15, and did not see the floor at all in three of the Lakers’ next four games. On Thursday, with Anthony Davis sitting out because of a bruised thigh, Horton-Tucker was back in action, a lone bright spot for the Lakers in a dismal loss to Detroit. Horton-Tucker had 13 points on 5-for-7 shooting.
Break out the conspiracy theories. That’s what former NBA center and ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins, and others around the NBA, did when looking at Horton-Tucker’s gradual weaning from the team’s rotation.
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“Lakers trying to keep Talen Horton-Tucker value down … the business side of things!” Perkins wrote on Twitter.
That was just days after league sources told Heavy.com that “multiple teams” were considering making a run at Horton-Tucker when he becomes a free agent this summer. The Lakers have the right to match any offer, but teams could present THT with a deal worth as much as $82 million over four years—and that might prove to be too rich for the Lakers to match.
“The way the rules are, I don’t see the Lakers letting him go,” one general manager told Heavy.com. “But teams can make this a more difficult decision for the Lakers than they’d like. Teams that have a lot of cap space and are looking to gamble on a young guy, why not put your money into him? The upside is obvious.”
Full Lakers Rotation, Bad Shooting Hurting Horton-Tucker
The upside becomes less obvious when Horton-Tucker is left on the bench and not on the floor. It could well be that the Lakers have reduced his role in hopes of tamping down the chances another team makes a sizable offer for him. If the Lakers can hold down Horton-Tucker’s production, they give themselves a better chance of keeping him on a smaller contract.
There could be a less sinister motivation, though. For one thing, the Lakers have a full rotation now, after dealing with injuries and absences from Alex Caruso, Wes Matthews and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Horton-Tucker generally only gets minutes when another rotation member is out.
With LeBron James playing 32.2 minutes per game and Kyle Kuzma playing well off the bench, there are not that many available minutes on the wing.
Horton-Tucker is the odd man out. It does not help that, while he had flashes of brilliance, he has been inconsistent offensively. He is averaging just 6.7 points on 43.0% shooting and 27.6% from the 3-point line.
Horton-Tucker Being Suppressed by Lakers?
So Horton-Tucker, who is still only 20 years old, will have to bide his time. There will be another Lakers injury and there will the opportunity to get back on the floor and get his shot right.
“I feel like if you prepare yourself for the moment you don’t have to prepare yourself when you’re actually in,” Horton-Tucker said. “Always trying to stay ready and paying attention to the guys that are out there performing. Being able to come in and stay ready for a long year like this is something I’m going to have to do on a daily basis.”
Maybe the Lakers are pulling the plug on THT to suppress his value on the free-agent market. But Horton-Tucker is represented by Klutch, the agency that represents LeBron James and Anthony Davis—if they suspected the Lakers were tinkering with Horton-Tucker’s minutes so that he would not get paid big money, they would surely complain.
In the end, the Lakers have a crowded rotation and Horton-Tucker just needs to show he can shoot before he firms up a spot in that rotatiton. Because of his natural defensive ability, if he can just be an average 3-point shooter, he will have massive value.
Unless, of course, Perkins is right and the Lakers are hoping to hold him back.