Newsletter: Lakers! Would playing in L.A. really offer a boost to LeBron James’ brand?

Hi this is Tania Ganguli, Lakers beat writer for the L.A. Times, here with your weekly newsletter. We thought we’d get you this week’s newsletter a little earlier in the day for a little reading material before the tournament games get going.

Last weekend the Lakers played the Cleveland Cavaliers, which gave me an opportunity to dive into the question of what kind of impact playing in Los Angeles can have on a player’s brand – even a player as great as LeBron James.

As part of this story, I spoke with two former Lakers — Shaquille O’Neal and Derek Fisher. I also cited a scene from a screening I went to in the fall of 2016 of “The Wall,” the NBC game show with which James’ production company is involved.

What struck me about both O’Neal’s and Fisher’s comments was that neither player thought the access Lakers players have to the entertainment industry, from a business perspective, would matter that much to James. After all, he’s already involved in that industry without living here full time (just like O’Neal did before he became a Laker). But both players still felt there was something unique that Los Angeles had to offer.


O’Neal told a great story about a star-studded party he attended that taught him he’d “rather have L.A. respect than damn Minnesota respect.” Fisher pointed to L.A.’s diversity and how important that was to him as a player. He felt that would also be important to James, who thinks of himself more broadly than as just an athlete.

Of course, when James makes his decision it will be about basketball, not these other concepts. And the night the Lakers played the Cavaliers, his team was upstaged on the court by the home team. Two players in particular.

We’ll start there.

Julius Randle and Isaiah Thomas are great together, but for how long?

Isaiah Thomas and Julius Randle have played 215 minutes together since the Lakers traded for Thomas on Feb. 8. Lineups that include them offer the best offensive rating of any other two-man combination that has played at least 200 minutes for the Lakers. Those lineups also have the best defensive rating of any two-man combination that includes players still on the team. (Larry Nance Jr./Brook Lopez and Nance Jr./Jordan Clarkson are the other two.)

The Lakers’ pick-and-roll works to perfection when Randle and Thomas are running it together.

“Just two basketball players,” Thomas said. “I know how to play, I’ve been in the league for a while, and he knows how to play and I mean, at the end of the day their defense has to pick and choose what they want to take away. And [if] there was one guy on me, I’m going to try to take it and make a play; if there’s two guys on me, obviously somebody else is open and he’s a helluva basketball player, so he makes it easier for myself.”

Randle had similarly glowing words about Thomas when I asked him about the connection.

Because of all the positivity around these two as a combination, I took particular interest in the tiff they got into during Wednesday night’s game in Oakland. My colleague Lance Pugmire was there and offered this description:

The frustration of the second half, when Golden State leaned on a 12-0 run to inflate their lead from a halftime tie, was seen when Lakers Julius Randle and Isaiah Thomas had heated words, with center Brook Lopez intervening.

“We expect a lot out of each other … it’s just communicating,” Randle said after scoring 22 points with 10 rebounds. “We want to win. We expect to win these games and we expect each other to play at a certain level, so it’s just us being teammates, nothing personal.”

Thomas said the injury void of Kyle Kuzma (ankle) and Brandon Ingram was felt during the back-to-back, calling his discussion with Randle, “two basketball players competing. We just happened to be yelling. We want the best for each other. There was a misunderstanding at one point. We talked about it. We’re good. It’s just me leading. If I see something, I’m going to say something.”

Twice in the past week, Lakers coach Luke Walton has told us that he likes it when Thomas yells at his teammates about various miscues, echoing the things the coaches are yelling from the bench.

His Lakers teammates react to it in different ways. Kyle Kuzma is good-natured about it. He laughed when I asked what Thomas tells him on the court, and said “he yells at me a lot.”

Randle reacted by yelling back. He is just as fiery and expressive as Thomas so it’s no surprise their disagreement got explosive. You’ll recall, Randle has these types of screaming matches with Walton during games, too, and it’s never a function of the two of them having a real problem.

It sounds like the same might be true for this interaction with Thomas.

That their chemistry is at such a comfortable point right now is a good thing for the Lakers, but there’s a good chance one or both players will be somewhere else next year. Both players are in the final year of their contract.

The way Randle has been playing lately, he won’t come cheap to whatever team signs him next year. And Thomas firmly believes in his ability as a starter. That opportunity might not be here with the Lakers, where Walton has continued to bring Thomas off the bench.

Since last we spoke…

— The Lakers acquired an irritant named Jamal Murray. Murray is the Nuggets’ 21-year-old point guard, in his second year out of Kentucky. Walton called him out by name after last Friday’s game in Denver, then when the Nuggets came to Los Angeles on Tuesday, all of Staples Center directed their anger at him. They Lakers won and Thomas capped the night by sardonically passing the ball to Murray as the clock expired. Murray didn’t shake hands with any of the Lakers before the game tipped off. Instead he ran toward the baseline right in front of the home media seats and greeted someone sitting courtside. Turns out that was his father, whose words to me sounded a lot like another point guard’s father.

— Kuzma sprained his ankle on Tuesday against the Nuggets. He had X-rays, which revealed no breaks, but he was not able to play Wednesday. He’ll see how the ankle feels this afternoon before the Lakers play Miami.

— The Rock visited the Lakers, which was especially exciting for Kuzma, who used to jump over furniture pretending to be The Rock as a kid. Kuzma was a fan of his wrestling. Lonzo Ball, who has never watched the WWE outside of the episode he, his brothers and father were on, is a fan of his movies. The Lakers also got a visit from Olympic sprinter Allyson Felix this week, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope thought he could beat her in a race. They’ve had speakers who’ve been successful in different professions this year. It comes from general manager Rob Pelinka’s desire for the players on his team to be well-rounded people.

— The subject of our last newsletter reached a conclusion later that day. The NBA said the Magic should have retained possession in the final second against the Lakers.

— Nance Jr. and Clarkson returned to Staples Center as visitors to cheers from the home fans. They both enjoyed reuniting with former teammates and coaches. It was exceptionally difficult for the Lakers to let go of both players, but it’s a trade that could work out positively for all parties.

Question of the week

This week’s question comes from Tommy Vargas:

“I have a question that needs explaining. It has to do with what is the NBA’s view on rookie status. I could be wrong, I don’t think that Ben Simmons should be considered a rookie. If a player is drafted by an NBA team and because of a coach’s decision, he doesn’t play a single second in his first season on the team but sits on the bench the whole time. Is that person considered a rookie the following season? I don’t think so. Please explain to me why Ben Simmons is considered a rookie his second season. Thanks Tania. I look forward to your answer.”

It has to do with opportunity to actually be on the court. If a player doesn’t get any playing time his rookie year, but is healthy enough to do so, that’s usually a case where said player wasn’t good enough to earn that playing time.

More importantly, he’s available to his team all year. That’s of course a subjective determination, and the whims of coaches can impact a player in this sense as well as when it comes to bonuses tied to certain playing time milestones. An injury is typically a little more cut and dried. Simmons never had the opportunity to play his rookie season.

On the other hand, I do understand your point. While Simmons didn’t play at all the year he got drafted, he benefited from being on an NBA team and around the game for that time. Still, is it fair to prevent him from ever competing for rookie honors like rookie of the year? Looks like I’ve answered your question with another question. Sorry!

Up next

The Lakers play the Miami Heat at home tonight and won’t have Brandon Ingram as he continues to recover from a groin strain. Then they’ll hit the road on Sunday for their last long road trip.


All times Pacific

Tonight vs. Miami, 7:30 p.m., NBATV

Monday at Indiana, 4 p.m.

Until next time

Stay tuned for future newsletters. Subscribe here, and I’ll come right to your inbox. Something else you’d like to see? Email me. Or follow me on Twitter @taniaganguli.