Column: Lakers’ trades will mean nothing if LeBron James is watching from the bench
The toxic Russell Westbrook is gone. A grown-up D’Angelo Russell is here.
The distracting Patrick Beverley is gone. The skilled Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt and Mo Bamba are here.
By the time the NBA trade deadline passed Thursday afternoon, Rob Pelinka had enjoyed one of his best days as a Lakers general manager, emptying the locker room of two huge troublemakers while adding two shooters, a rebounder and some backup length.
But then, 1 hour 25 minutes later, the Lakers announced one more move that contained a more powerful message than all the trades combined.
LeBron James (left ankle soreness) has been downgraded to OUT for that night’s game versus Milwaukee.
The starkness of that statement was the truth in the deadline.
On the day the Lakers finally answered James’ constant nagging with some talented young players, he couldn’t play.
NBA fans and media members react to the biggest moves at the trade deadline, including the Lakers trading Russell Westbrook.
No matter how much the Lakers improved on the periphery, their heart is still beholden to the health of a 38-year-old player who is physically and emotionally exhausted from the final days of the chase for the all-time scoring record.
It was not a coincidence that James sat on the bench in the final 37 seconds of the Lakers’ loss to Oklahoma City on his record night, even though they trailed by just two possessions at the time. He was wiped out.
It was also no surprise that James sat out Thursday’s game and will surely miss more over the season’s last two months as the Lakers chase a spot in the playoffs. He has had foot problems that were masqueraded as he furiously pursued history.
He’s feeling it now. The Lakers will be feeling it for the rest of the season. Their trade haul was nice, but the questions remain.
They’re more competitive, but will it count? They’re better, but will it matter?
Of course, it’s not just James that concerns them. Everyone in Los Angeles has learned to groan in apprehension and resignation every time Anthony Davis hits the floor.
Today’s fear is James, but an ominous Davis is always on deck.
“Us monitoring his foot and issues there,” coach Darvin Ham explained of James’ absence. “We were able to get some pictures of it and thankful that it’s not anything extensive, just normal wear and tear.”
Pictures? That’s always worrisome. Ham acknowledged that they’ll be monitoring James’ minutes.
“The biggest thing for him is for us to be efficient with his availability as well as his minutes and all that, and try to give his body a chance, whenever we can, to recover,” said Ham.
The harried coach didn’t appear to be sweating James’ status Thursday, and actually seemed to be genuinely relaxed. That’s what bidding farewell to Westbrook and Beverley will do.
He also seemed excited that, instead of playing his usual role of hall monitor and peacekeeper, he can now actually teach and coach.
“We added some pieces that are young, still on the uptick, having proven themselves to be really effective NBA players, and also fitting the needs we have in terms of creating more spacing for LeBron and AD,” Ham said.
This works only if that spacing isn’t the distance between the court and the trainer’s room.
If nothing else, the coming weeks will give Lakers fans a chance to change their opinion of that rare Laker who was once booed.
As most remember, Russell started his career as a Laker, arriving as the No. 2 overall pick in 2015.
He immediately made his mark with an immaturity that manifested itself in arrogance and rudeness.
During that rookie season, in a shocking move that should have been no surprise, Russell secretly taped teammate Nick Young admitting that he was cheating on his fiancée Iggy Azalea. When the tape leaked out to social media, the Lakers locker room erupted with an angry distrust that made it impossible for Russell to become a leader here.
A season later, then-basketball boss Magic Johnson basically gave him away, shipping him to Brooklyn because he knew the team would never embrace him after the Young incident.
“D’Angelo is an excellent player,” Johnson said at the time. “He has the talent to be an All-Star. We want to thank him for what he did for us. But what I needed was a leader. I needed somebody also that can make the other players better and also [somebody] that players want to play with.”
The comments made Russell furious. So furious, he actually grew up.
Two years later, in 2019, Johnson told the Athletic’s Bill Oram that Russell had changed and should be welcomed home.
“Now he’s ready,” Johnson said. “He’s much more mature. I said the only thing, he was immature back then. He could always score, but the guys would never play with him because of what he did. But now all those guys are gone and he’s on another level now.”
Three teams later — Brooklyn, Golden State, Minnesota — Russell is back as a good shooter and strong competitor, and it will be interesting to see the results of his growth.
The Lakers have traded center Thomas Bryant to the Denver Nuggets for reserve guard Davon Reed and three future second-round picks.
Not that it’s going to mean anything if James isn’t on the court making him shine.
At the end of Thursday’s pregame ceremony honoring James for setting the scoring record, James addressed the crowd and, for one of the first times, publicly talked about belonging to the home team.
“You guys over the last five years have become family as well,” he said to the cheering crowd. “Every time I step on the floor, I understand … what it means to be a Los Angeles Laker.”
The good news for Lakers fans is that it was moments before tipoff against the Milwaukee Bucks and James was standing at midcourt.
The bad news was, he was wearing a blue suit.
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