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Lakers ‘lost themselves’ after trade rumors with Pelicans at deadline

At his 2018-19 exit interview, Kyle Kuzma takes stock in what went right for the Los Angeles Lakers this season.

The first time Tyson Chandler was traded it was only 10 months after he signed a six-year deal with the Chicago Bulls. The team that drafted him sent him to New Orleans as they pursued other players.

He cried.

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"It was the first time I had been rejected in my career," Chandler said. "You know, when you are young and like myself, a lot of these guys, you've always been Number One. Everybody always wants you. And then for the first time in your career, somebody's going 'Eh, you don't quite make the cut.'"

It took Chandler time to understand, but in his 18 NBA seasons, he stopped taking transactions so personally. He appreciated his career and the time he got to spend playing the game. But having gone through that means he understands perfectly well just how hard February was for his Lakers teammates.

One theme emerged during Magic Johnson's two final press conferences as a Lakers executive. Both in Philadelphia on Feb. 10, when he said to stop treating Lakers' players like "babies," and in Los Angeles on Tuesday night when he abruptly resigned.

"The young guys better grow up quick because this is a part of basketball," Johnson said Tuesday. "This is a part of sports. This is a part of my life. When you enter into professional sports and you enter in the NBA, your name will always be sometime mentioned in trades."

But his second reference to the subject betrayed a truth that several players acknowledged on Wednesday during the team's exit interviews. Whether Johnson found it acceptable or not, the trade deadline did impact their emotional state, it impacted their chemistry and it served as a learning experience.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope addresses the media after his exit interview.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope addresses the media after his exit interview. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

"At the trade deadline, everybody kind of lost themselves," Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. "… The locker room changed. Everybody was pretty much worried about that — especially guys that haven't been through it. They were worried where they were going to end up. How they were going to do it. How it was going to mentally affect them."

In the final week of January, Pelicans star Anthony Davis requested a trade. Several days later his agent, Rich Paul, made public comments about his trade request. What followed was a power struggle between Paul and a Pelicans organization that wanted to appease neither Paul nor the Lakers, who openly coveted Davis.

Lakers star LeBron James had told ESPN a few weeks prior that it would be "amazing" if the Lakers traded for Davis. His teammates took notice, especially when it seemed that Paul, who is also James' agent, was trying to make it happen.

What further rankled the Lakers' young players was that their names were included in the very public discussions. At first, word leaked that the Pelicans wanted a package of several young Lakers. At a press conference shortly afterward, Kyle Kuzma said he took that as a compliment that another team wanted him.

But the tenor of the discussion changed when the Lakers began offering packages with several young players and multiple draft picks. When the trade deadline passed without a deal, Lonzo Ball posted an Instagram video celebrating. Johnson later said the Pelicans did not negotiate in good faith.

"For the first time in our life, as young players and not even just us because everyone was in talks, but it was the first time realizing that basketball is business," Kuzma said on Wednesday. "For us, our whole life as young players, we've been strictly, 'Have fun, enjoy the game.' All this and all that but then you get to the NBA and part of — going back to what Magic said — growing up, you have to realize this is business and you can always say, 'Control what you can control,' but without going through something first you can't really listen to other peoples' logic behind things."

Josh Hart assesses his injury-riddled season and looks for better health in the future.

Kuzma said he agreed with Johnson's take that players needed to be treated less delicately. He added, though, that he did not think the rumors had a lasting impact on the Lakers' locker room. He pointed to how excited the Lakers' bench would get late in the season about their teammates' successes.

Josh Hart, another player the Lakers' offered to the Pelicans, agreed.

"No one's perfect," Hart said. "You slip a little bit, but that's when your teammate's there to pick you up. So I guess it was annoying. The media made it annoying. Social media made it annoying. But at the end of the day there was no frustration with each other. No frustration between us and the front office. We were all a collective unit, and we tried to be professionals about it."

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Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli

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