LeBron James returns as new-look Lakers impress in win over Pelicans

Lakers forward LeBron James drives against a New Orleans Pelican defender during the game.
Lakers forward LeBron James (6) drives against a New Orleans Pelican defender during the game at Arena on Wednesday.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The evidence doesn’t just suggest a deep breath and a pause. It demands it.

For 58 games, the Lakers have been wildly inconsistent, more ups and downs — and honestly, more downs — than anyone inside the Lakers’ locker room wanted to stomach.

But before their final game before the All-Star Game, Lakers coach Darvin Ham grinned.

A new lineup was about to debut — maybe the lineup he and the organization has searched for all year.

Maybe things would be different, like actually different, this time, the Lakers healthy and whole. And they didn’t disappoint, previous evidence or not.


The Lakers beat New Orleans 120-102, heading into the All-Star break with some good vibes and a smidge of momentum.

Ham opened with D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt alongside Anthony Davis and the returning LeBron James — the full roster available to the Lakers’ rookie coach for the first time since the trade deadline.

The Lakers made some big moves before the NBA trade deadline in hopes of mounting a playoff push, and building flexibility for the future.

Feb. 14, 2023

“I have a few surprises up my sleeve,” Ham said before the game.

Everything was aces early, the Lakers opening Wednesday night’s game with eight consecutive points on their way to a 17-4 lead.

“It was about trying to create as much balance as we possibly could,” Ham said afterward.

The Lakers assisted each of their first 12 made baskets, playing some of their most beautiful basketball of the season.

“For close to 48 minutes, it looked pretty good,” James said after scoring 21 points following a three-game absence because of foot soreness.

But deep breath. Pause.

The problems the Lakers have had along the way in their season where they’ve never been over .500 cannot be overcome in a single quarter.


New Orleans extended possessions on the offensive glass, a problem that has crippled the Lakers for most of the season.

Their three-point shooting, which started so hot in the opening minutes, cooled way down with James, Rui Hachimura and Mo Bamba combining to miss all of their 14 three-point attempts.

And the team was mostly a mess at the free-throw line, getting to the line but hovering around 60% for most of the game, finishing 22 for 36. “We left a lot of points out there,” Ham said.

Still, the Pelicans’ pushes were always met with responses, the team having one of its best nights of the season in as must-win of a game as you can have in mid-February.

Lakers forward Anthony Davis drives against the New Orleans Pelicans.
Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) drives against the New Orleans Pelicans at arena on Wednesday.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The Lakers are hopeful that the break can be an opportunity to refine their game plans to their new personnel, the drastic roster changes demanding new plays and new coverages.


“My coaching staff and I talked about that extensively,” Ham said. “We were actually in their meeting today, digging through the roster, putting different combinations up on the board. Absolutely. Not just offensively, but defensively as well. Add a guy like Vandy and add a guy like Mo, we just have that extra rim protection aside from AD. It’s going to be huge.”

Some of the changes are obvious— the extra shooting creating extra space for driving and cutting. The Lakers were able to use that to run multiple plays for lobs, including one to James.

Austin Reaves also found James on a back-cut leading to a three-point play to help stave off a mini Pelicans run in the fourth.

With James and Davis on the floor, it was easy to see how the newest Lakers would fit. Beasley flew around, the ball quickly hitting his palms before he launched his jumper. Vanderbilt hounded Brandon Ingram, forcing Ingram to make incredibly difficult shots whenever he could get one off (and to Ingram’s credit, he made some tough ones).

And Russell, playing in his first home game in Los Angeles since April 9, 2017, probed in and out of the defense, attacking in pick-and-roll and getting hot in the third.

“We just competed,” said Davis, who led the Lakers with 28 points and 10 rebounds.

After scoring six straight points, a stretch Russell punctuated with a high-arced pull-up three in transition, he bounced back down the court pointing to the “Lakers” across his chest. “Like I never left,” he appeared to say. He scored 21 points and collected a team-high seven assists.


Damian Lillard had 40 points, including eight three-pointers, to lead the Trail Blazers to a 127-115 win over the Lakers, who were without LeBron James.

Feb. 13, 2023

Before the game, Ham said he thought Russell could help the Lakers make their late-season push by being “Regular ol’ DLo.”

“A really good pick-and-roll player. Really good shooter. Really not going to have to force anything,” Ham said in a staccato scouting report. “Just play with the flow within the flow of everything we’re doing and just be assertive. Even, you run into that problem with Bron and AD on the floor sometimes where guys tend to defer and defer and defer, but we want him to be aggressive.”

It wasn’t a problem — for now — and while the evidence might suggest people wait to make judgments, Lakers fans have a week to enjoy the possibilities that they witnessed the start of something new.

“I called it a Q-of-L win,” Ham said with a smile. “Quality of life.”