Two seasons ago, the Los Angeles Lakers‘ last game played before the trade deadline felt like a referendum on the state of the franchise — a 42-point blowout loss in Indiana as rumors swirled. Tuesday’s 128-111 road loss to the New Orleans Pelicans wasn’t that for the Lakers, they are the defending NBA champions after all, but the resulting angst was eerily reminiscent.
“You’ve got to be realistic,” said Kyle Kuzma afterwards, left to be the default player spokesman with LeBron James and Anthony Davis both out with injuries. “It’s a challenge. But it’s not nothing that we can’t overcome.”
The Pelicans game got ugly, with the Lakers trailing by as many as 30 points, which happened to coincide with the number of points they were outscored by in the paint (62-32), while they were without their best defender in Davis and their starting center, Marc Gasol, who missed his ninth straight game as he ramps up after a stint in the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
When the 2019 Lakers bottomed out in Indiana, the tension stemmed from the team’s pursuit of Davis, with L.A.’s young collection of budding stars wondering if the sun was coming down on the starts to their careers in Southern California.
These Lakers aren’t in an identical situation. Some of those young players from two years ago were on the other side of things on Tuesday, with Brandon Ingram leading all scorers with 36 points on 14-for-21 shooting and Josh Hart notching 15 rebounds, five assists and five steals even though he only shot 1-for-9. (Their angst at the deadline in February 2019 wasn’t unfounded — the Davis trade with the Pelicans just went through four months later).
No, the Lakers aren’t looking to make wholesale changes to land a second star to pair with James this time around. They have their franchise pillars, albeit one is in a walking boot and the other hasn’t played since Valentine’s Day.
However, there is still pressure to improve around the margins and boost their championship chances come the postseason. For much of the season, that looked like it would involve perusing the buyout market for an impact veteran or two, much the way L.A. added Markieff Morris last year and he became a vital piece during their run in the bubble.
But now, on a three-game losing streak, bringing their record to 7-10 since Davis got hurt and falling to No. 4 in the Western Conference standings — just 2 ½ games up on No. 6, Portland — those plans could be adjusted.
“I think it certainly will impact what our mindset is come trade deadline time,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said over the weekend when asked about the state of his team.
One name mentioned as a potential candidate to be moved is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The shooting guard was rewarded with a three-year, $40 million deal coming off a postseason in which he averaged 10.7 points on 37.8% from 3-point distance while being one of the most reliable perimeter defenders the Lakers had, but has seen his 3-point percentage dip this season from 52.9% in December, to 46.0% in January to 32.1% in February, until coming back to 37.5% this month before Tuesday’s 1-for-7 shooting night. Asked about the spot he’s in, he was frank.
“I don’t know who all’s in the trade talk, I haven’t really paid attention to it or even heard anything about it,” he said. “It was my first time hearing about it. But I don’t know… Man, I feel like the energy’s good, I don’t think nobody’s worried about any trade unless they’re keeping it personal.”
The Lakers are certainly keeping things personal. While it’s become fashionable for some of the league’s executives to pass trade intentions to the press as a sort of trial balloon to gauge a player’s value, virtually none of the rumors you’ll read this week are originating from Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka’s office in El Segundo, California.
That’s another way things are different than two years ago, when the Lakers were complicit in the chaos that occurred leading up to the deadline with the information they were passing around.
No, it’s not the Lakers’ fault that they only had a 71-day offseason and the quick turnaround could have contributed to Davis’ right leg injuries. They had no control over Solomon Hill diving on James’ ankle to try to steal the ball. They had no way of knowing their status as favorites would be so short lived with a former MVP in James Harden forcing his way out of Houston to join a couple other offensive maestros in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the Brooklyn Nets, catapulting Brooklyn’s chances as contenders. They didn’t get to choose the spot in the schedule when James would go out, smack dab in a torturous stretch of eight games in 12 days.
That’s the reality though. That’s where things stand and that’s why this moment, less than 48 hours before Thursday’s trade deadline, has some of the same feeling for the Lakers that it did two days before the deadline two years ago.
There’s a lot at stake.
“My expectation is we’re going to win games with this group, and I believe in the group that we have,” Vogel said. “If nothing happens [at the trade deadline], we’re gonna win games and we’ll figure out a way to win games during this stretch, and it will benefit us in the long run. I’m not sure if we’ll see any changes or not. … Most trade deadlines are a lot of talks that result in nothing, and that’s my expectation as a coach.”
For Kuzma, one of the only holdovers, along with Alex Caruso, from that young core a couple years ago to stick around, perhaps there were some lessons learned.
No matter what happens at the trade deadline, there’s work to be done.
“I think we just got to look at the drawing board, continue to trust each other, try to play for one another on both sides of the ball,” Kuzma said. “I think if we can do that, we give ourselves a chance every single night.
“That’s the challenge we’re up against. Just got to strap it up and go.”