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Lakers! Time to get serious

Lakers! Time to get serious
LeBron James (Streeter Lecka / Getty Images)

Hi this is Tania Ganguli, Lakers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, here with your Lakers newsletter.

The All-Star game is behind us and tomorrow the Lakers will be back to practice, having had some time to recharge.

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Now they enter a most critical stretch of the season. The eight seed in last year’s Western Conference was the Minnesota Timberwolves and they won 47 games. Right now, the Lakers have 28 wins, which means to reach that threshold they will have to go 19-6 over their remaining regular season games.

That benchmark might or might not be what a team needs to make this year’s playoffs, but the task remains difficult if we look at what’s actually happening this year. Realistically, the Lakers will be competing with the Kings (30-27), Clippers (32-27) Spurs (33-26) and Jazz (32-25). Those teams are all within four games of each other.

The Trail Blazers and Rockets are currently the fourth and fifth seeds, and not only a game or two ahead of the aforementioned group, but making up the five or six games it would take the Lakers to catch them might not be feasible.

Of the Lakers remaining 25 games, nine of them are against teams that are currently out of the playoffs. We know from experience this season, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Lakers will beat those teams. They have, after all, lost to the Knicks, Cavaliers and Hawks. Furthermore, six of those nine games the Lakers play against teams currently out of the playoffs will come on the road.

The bottom line is this: if the Lakers can get back to playing how they were before LeBron James’ injury, they will make the playoffs.

We just don’t know if they will.

On tampering

Team LeBron in this year’s All-Star game was dubbed by some “Team Tamper.” Five of his first six picks were either players headed toward free agency this summer (Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson) or Pelicans star Anthony Davis, who wants to play for the Lakers.

A photo of Davis and James shaking hands and looking like pals went viral during the break. Some kept tabs on which players James passed the ball to during the game.

The Lakers are a franchise that believes in stars. Jerry Buss believed that you should always have a superstar on your team, and if you can’t have a superstar player, you should have a superstar coach. That’s what he saw in Magic Johnson 40 years ago when the Lakers drafted him.

Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka have been very open about that being the Lakers plan. The problem is, there are 29 teams in the NBA who don’t want to see that plan work. And many of them currently employ players the Lakers would love to have. To make matters worse, the Lakers were caught tampering with Paul George two years ago, which served to confirm suspicions held by some other teams.

That means every move the Lakers make, every word their executives utter that comes close to discussing potential acquisitions, gets scrutinized by reporters, other teams and the NBA.

That’s what led to last week’s drama about Ben Simmons. Simmons could become a restricted free agent in 2020 but there’s been no indication that Simmons wants to leave Philadelphia. I was even told by someone familiar with his thinking last week that he plans to be a Sixer for a long time.

When Johnson was asked if he enjoys watching Simmons play, his mind seemed torn between two outcomes.

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He does love the way Simmons, a 6-foot-10 point guard, plays, and wanted to discuss their similarities. But he had been fined for tampering a year ago for saying Giannis Antetokounmpo would bring a championship to Milwaukee. So Johnson tried to head off the tampering discussion at the pass.

He revealed that Simmons reached out to the Lakers about meeting with him, and then quickly said Simmons had been informed that would only happen if the Lakers, 76ers and the NBA all agreed to allow it.

It didn’t work. You can read about all the craziness that ensued here.

Ultimately the league agreed quickly that the Lakers did not tamper, but it served as another reminder of the league’s sensitivity to the Lakers and their future plans.

Since last we spoke

--When Johnson first spoke to us before that game in Philadelphia, the bigger news than the Simmons dust-up was that he flatly said the Pelicans did not negotiate in good faith with the Lakers through the Anthony Davis negotiations. Johnson was in town to address the players after the discontent that bubbled up around the trade deadline. He gave them tough love and told us to stop treating them like babies.

--Pelinka believes James is like Tom Brady and that Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala can be Julian Edelman (the Super Bowl MVP) type figures.

--The 76ers are really, really good. They hung 143 points on the Lakers who just couldn’t keep up.

--Lonzo Ball is in the range of when he could return to play, and last week I was told he was getting ready to start working on an anti-gravity treadmill, having been running on an underwater treadmill before that. The Lakers defense has missed him.

--LeBron’s triple double didn’t stop a loss to the lowly Hawks.

--My colleague Broderick Turner reports that the Lakers are holding firm to what Magic Johnson told us a few months ago. Luke Walton won’t be fired this season.

--Amid reports that James wanted Walton fired, our Bill Plaschke lauds Jeanie Buss for standing firm.

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--Kyle Kuzma is sick and tired of talking about the trade deadline. He let that be known during All-Star weekend, in which he participated in the Rising Stars game and the skills competition. He also shared a goal he has for next season: He wants to be an All Star.

--With a week off for the All-Star break, most of the Lakers treated themselves to an extended vacation if they didn’t have All Star weekend responsibilities (which James and Kuzma did). Bullock didn’t have to be in Charlotte, but he spent some time with the LGBTQ community there, my colleague Arash Markazi reports.

--Thinking about James’ longevity is a surreal thing sometimes. It was perfectly encapsulated in this year’s All-Star game. He was playing with a former teammate who’s reached the end of his long career in the league. He was also playing with potential future teammates that could help him into the next phase of his career.

--All-Star festivities behind him, James was ready to get down to business.

--Last weekend, my colleague Dan Woike asked around to see what people thought about this question: Is James still the NBA’s greatest?

One note before I leave you.

You’ll notice me linking to more and more stories from other colleagues. In this edition alone, you can click to stories from five different Times reporters. My first two years covering the Lakers, Turner and I were the only two NBA reporters at the paper. Over the years, the Times’ sports staff had dwindled and the city added two football teams during that time, stretching us even thinner.

We’re under new ownership now, with Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong having bought the Times and other Tribune properties, and that’s allowed us to expand our staff throughout the paper. There are now four of us covering the NBA regularly, which allows us to cover the Lakers, Clippers and the league as a whole much more thoroughly. It gives us a chance to dive into topics we couldn’t always explore before. Consider subscribing so we can keep at it!

As always, email me your thoughts or questions and sign up for this newsletter here. Until next time…

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