It was only two weeks ago when the Lakers seemed on the brink of oblivion.
Anthony Davis was out with a nebulous injury, and the team was just 2-5 without him. After a loss to the Miami Heat, LeBron James signaled his impatience with his 38th birthday approaching with a statement that sounded very much like a call to action for the Lakers’ front office.
“I don’t want to finish my career playing at this level from a team aspect,” James said on Dec. 28. “I’ll still be able to compete for championships because I know what I can still bring to any ball club with the right pieces.”
The Lakers are now at the halfway point of the regular season, with a 5-1 record since James’ pointed commentary on the team’s direction. It could have been the match that lit the locker room into chaos – instead, it might have been the fire the Lakers needed under them. In spite of a short-handed loss to Denver on Monday night, many of the Lakers say now the team is headed “in the right direction.” The Lakers are 19-22 in a crowded Western Conference, just 1½ games behind the sixth-place Golden State Warriors.
The hunky-dory-ness of the Lakers lately might be more of a passing calm than a rock-solid foundation, and their schedule heats up significantly with Dallas, Philadelphia and Memphis among their next five games. But with Davis expected back in the coming weeks, and the team winning the kind of close games they were losing at the start of the season, the call to action, Coach Darvin Ham said, was necessary to shake them out of their slump.
“Everybody wants to make it a story, like ‘LeBron’s calling out his teammates,’ or ‘LeBron’s doing that.’ He’s stating facts,” Ham said recently. “So no one wants to be comfortable with losing, or get repetitious with losing, or being satisfied with, ‘OK, we had great individual performances, but there’s another one in the L column.’ No one wants that. So yeah, it’s almost like ringing an alarm. ‘Everybody wake up.’”
The Lakers are awake. Here are the biggest questions facing them in the second half of the season:
1. Is there a trade out there?
The biggest obstacle the Lakers face in a win-now trade: Who is offering?
The team has chosen the patient route to await better options. They steadfastly deny that they’re hoarding draft picks: The idea is that they don’t just want to get into the playoffs, but they want to be a real contender.
The pickings appear mighty slim at the moment. The Lakers strongly considered packages from the Utah Jazz and Indiana Pacers over the summer, but both of those teams have performed better than expected this season. One of the most obvious candidates for a helpful player from a bad team is a former Jazz player – Detroit’s Bojan Bogdanovic – but there are plenty of teams who will want to bid for a 6-foot-7 wing with playoff experience who is shooting 40% from 3-point range. Teams like the Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors might be teetering on the brink of rebuilding, but it’s not clear either will go through a fire sale yet.
Whether they dive into their 2027 or 2029 first-round draft picks or try to make a deal with second-rounders, the Lakers have some key depth issues at wing and in the frontcourt that need addressing if they want to be a threat this season. Russell Westbrook has found a niche in his reserve role, but his salary remains the biggest tool the Lakers have at their disposal to bring in more than one piece.
One wonders if the original Westbrook trade, which has now been panned many times over, has made the Lakers’ front office gun-shy. Are they afraid of compounding their original mistake? Or has that failure made key decision-makers nervous about making another big move? The Lakers’ front office will have to answer questions about the sincerity of its competitive spirit if a third straight trade deadline passes with no moves at all.
2. Do the role players continue playing tough?
The front office does earn some credit here: After disastrous veteran’s minimum signings last season, they did find a handful of bargains as they sought to rebuild.
Bringing back Thomas Bryant, a 2017 draft pick, has paid off handsomely, especially after Davis got hurt. The return of Dennis Schröder has helped as the German – who once was in line for a huge payday with the Lakers – has thrived as a shooter around James and Westbrook. Lonnie Walker IV and Troy Brown Jr. have each had moments, even though there are times when both seem to be playing bigger roles than they should. Keeping Austin Reaves and Wenyen Gabriel has paid off handsomely.
Westbrook’s transition into a reserve hasn’t necessarily made him a better player – his shooting figures still are hovering at career lows – but he certainly seems more invested. Westbrook was composed Monday night about the team’s approach to a “next man up” mentality, which he said has been enabled by the culture the team is building.
“If you kinda create a culture, create a way we’re supposed to play, the next guy just kind of gets in line – should at least,” he said. “And I think that it’s something we’re kinda establishing.”
The bottom-line stats have improved. Since their dreadful 2-10 start, the Lakers have gone 17-12 with a plus-1.8 net rating during that stretch. After blowing close games ad nauseam to begin the season, the Lakers now have a 9-9 record in games within five points in the last five minutes.
That has to continue against tougher competition, in a trade deadline season that is likely to pile on the pressure. Do the role players of the Lakers use it as motivation – as they did James’ commentary – or does it make this seemingly solid locker room crack, the way it did in 2019 and 2022?
3. Will LeBron James and Anthony Davis be healthy and invested?
If you want to see how James’ attitude has changed in the last two weeks, there is a recent informative episode: In an interview with The Athletic, James said “y’all know what the (expletive) should be happening,” a quote that read as continually waning impatience for the front office to make a move. But the 38-year-old felt compelled to clarify that on Sunday and was defensive of his teammates.
“You make it sound like I’m frustrated when I’m really not,” James tweeted Sunday. “I told you over and over, my job is focused on the guys in the locker room, my job isn’t the roster.”
To be clear, James might very well want moves to happen. But it’s harder to justify pouting when the team is winning. And James himself has played a huge hand in that lately, awarded Western Conference Player of the Week after compiling huge scoring totals throughout the five-game winning streak.
There was a certain hunger in James’ eyes after the win in Sacramento, when he talked about hunting for weaknesses in the Kings’ coverage.
“For me, my vision is always on the third line of defense,” James said. “It’s not on the guy that’s guarding me. It’s not the guy that’s guarding the guy that’s setting the screen. It’s more that third level. So, just trying to be steps ahead of the play.”
That line matches with the play seen lately from James: He’s competitive and searching for wins. His subpar start to the season reflected a bit of angst as the Lakers stumbled out of the gate; now he’s reached midseason form.
But Lakers fans know the pitfalls of getting their hopes up when James seems positioned to forge ahead. The team won four straight games out of the 2021 All-Star break without Davis when Atlanta’s Solomon Hill flew into James’ leg. James again looked ready to deal in a March 2022 game against New Orleans when he sprained his ankle, only playing in one of the last eight remaining games as they missed out on a play-in berth.
At this point, the bigger injury concern is Davis, who has been vaunted as an MVP candidate when healthy this season, but over the past three seasons has missed almost half of all possible games. Davis expressed confidence recently that he’d find a way to compete without surgery on his right foot, but admitted he will likely need surgery at some point.
The hesitation of the front office is only compounded by an inability to get Davis and James – a proven championship-level duo – on the court together for long stretches. James is 38; Davis is injury-prone. They’ve played just 19 of 41 games and 484 minutes together this season. The Lakers won’t get back to the promised land without the buy-in and health of their stars – all other factors fall by the wayside.
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