Two years ago, the Los Angeles Lakers’ last game before the trade deadline was a referendum on the state of the group – a 42-point loss against the Indiana Pacers that made the rounds. Tuesday’s 128-111 loss against the New Orleans Pelicans was not for the Lakers – they are, after all, the defending NBA champions – but the resulting outrage reminded them of something scary.
We have to be realistic, Kyle Kuzma said afterward, the default spokesman for LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who are both injured. It’s a challenge. But it’s nothing we can’t overcome.
The Pelicans game has gotten ugly: The Lakers trailed by 30 points and scored their points in the paint (62-32) as Davis was without its best defender and starting center Marc Gasol, who missed his ninth consecutive game after rebounding and setting COVID-19 league safety and health records.
When the Lakers hit rock bottom in Indiana in 2019, tensions arose over Davis’ continuation with the team. A young group of aspiring Los Angeles stars wondered if the sun would set on the beginning of their Southern California careers.
The Lakers are not in the same situation. Some of those young players from two years ago were on the other end Tuesday, including Brandon Ingram with 36 points on a 14-for-21 shooting percentage and Josh Hart, who had 15 rebounds, five assists and five steals despite shooting just 1-for-9. (Their concerns about the February 2019 deadline were not unfounded – Davis’ trade with the Pelicans lasted four months.)
No, the Lakers aren’t planning on making a big move to get a second star alongside James. They have their fixes, even if one wears a running sole and the other hasn’t played since Valentine’s Day.
However, there is still pressure to improve on the field and increase the chances of winning in the post-season. Throughout much of the season, it looked like they would be in the market for a veteran or two, with Los Angeles contracting Markieff Morris last year, who went on to play a key role during their run on the bubble.
But after a three-game losing streak that now puts the Lakers at 7-10 since Davis’ injury and has dropped them to fourth in the Western Conference standings – just 2.5 games behind Portland, which is in sixth place – those plans may change.
I think it will definitely affect our thinking when the trade deadline comes, Lakers coach Frank Vogel said last weekend when asked about the state of his team.
One name mentioned as a potential transfer candidate is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The shooter was rewarded with a three-year, $40 million contract in the postseason, in which he averaged 10.7 points with 37.8 percent three-pointers and was one of the Lakers’ most reliable perimeter defenders, But his three-point percentage has dropped sharply this season, from 52.9 percent in December to 46 percent in January, then to 32.1 percent in February, before dropping back to 37.5 percent this month to a 1-for-7 shooting night Tuesday. When asked about the location, he was honest.
I don’t know who says all those things about the trade, I haven’t really paid attention or even heard anything about it, he said. This is the first I’ve heard of it. But I don’t know. … I feel like the energy is good, I don’t think anyone cares about an exchange unless they keep it secret.
Kyle Kuzma and the rest of the Lakers are playing in the absence of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. EPA/ETIENNE LORAN
The Lakers are definitely keeping things under wraps. While it has become fashionable for some division directors to share their trade intentions with the media as a sort of trial balloon to gauge a player’s value, virtually none of the rumors you read this week come from the office of Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka in El Segundo, Calif.
That’s different than two years ago, when the Lakers got caught up in the chaos of the run-up to the deadline with the information they passed on.
No, it’s not the fault of the Lakers, who had just a 71-day offseason, and a quick turnaround may have contributed to Davis’ right foot injury. They couldn’t control Solomon Hill, who jumped on Jacob’s ankle to try and steal the ball. Little did they know that their status as favorites would be so short that former MVP James Harden would have to leave Houston to join the Brooklyn Nets with two other aggressive maestros Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, catapulting Brooklyn’s chances as a contender. They couldn’t pick a spot on the schedule when James hit the road for a tortuous run of eight games in 12 days.
But that’s reality. That’s what it all comes down to, and that’s why the Lakers feel the same way about it now, less than 48 hours before Thursday’s trade deadline, as they did two years ago, two days before this date.
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There’s a lot at stake.
I expect us to win games with this group, and I believe in this group, Vogel said. If nothing happens [at the trade deadline], we’re going to win games, and we’re going to find a way to win games all the time, and that will benefit us in the long run. I don’t know if we will see changes or not. … Most trade deadlines are discussions that go nowhere, and that’s what I expect as a coach.
Because Kuzma, who along with Alex Caruso was one of the few owners who stuck with this young core a few years ago, may have learned something.
No matter what happens at the time of the agreement, the work must be done.
I think we just need to look at the drawing board, continue to trust each other and try to play for each other on both sides of the ball, Kuzma said. I think if we can do that, we have a chance every night.
That is the challenge we face. All you have to do is tie him up and leave.
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