Hi, this is Tania Ganguli, Lakers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, here with your Lakers newsletter.
The Lakers are hitting the road again and will face teams that they mostly have not yet seen. They’ll play the Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers for the first time, and see the New York Knicks for the second and final time this season.
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It’s a trip that brings back memories of how this season started. The Lakers and the Nets went to China in October and their trips were dramatically altered because of a tweet sent by the general manager of the Rockets.
The fallout from that incident is still very much at play. The Rockets, once the most popular team in China, are no longer having their games aired in the country, where broadcasts are controlled by the government. The relationship between China and the NBA is still rocky, though other teams’ games are being broadcast. Some believe it will have a significant enough impact on the league’s bottom line to lower the salary cap.
I just left a Lakers practice where the team made Dwight Howard and Frank Vogel available to reporters. Both were asked about the fallout from that experience and neither wanted to talk about it. One thing that Vogel was willing to address was what he learned about his team going through that experience.
“To me it was an early, good sign that we were going to have great chemistry this year,” Vogel said. “When you deal with adversity before you really even hit the ground and you’re able to kind of grow and be together like that, it was just an early sign that our chemistry was going to be strong.”
Had the Lakers gotten off to a rocky start, they could have pointed to that trip as a reason why. On top of the regular disruption that comes with a trip like that, such as jet lag, there was the additional disruption of practices being altered and the team being thrust into an unsettling situation. The players and coaches weren’t sure if their actions or words could cause an international incident, so they all treaded very carefully.
But, as we know, the Lakers did not get off to a rocky start. Although they lost to the Clippers to open the season, the first half has been even better than they imagined it would be with a 33-8 record, best in the Western Conference and second only to the Milwaukee Bucks (37-6).
LeBron’s chart climbing
This trip could be when we see LeBron James reach a milestone that will mean a lot for his Lakers tenure. He is 111 points behind Kobe Bryant on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, having passed Michael Jordan last season. The top four players on the list all spent at least part of their careers with the Lakers, but passing Bryant would be significant.
This season, James is averaging 25.4 points, and if that continues it would mean passing Bryant in Philadelphia, where Bryant spent his high school years.
All-time scoring is only one statistical chart James is climbing. He’s also rising on the assists list. There, James is behind another player who is still active — his close friend Chris Paul.
I asked him if there was any friendly trash talk between the two about that. Paul did post something recently on Instagram in which he joked that he wouldn’t mind if James cooled it with the assists.
“If we’re able to hit a milestone throughout the course of this marathon, we acknowledge one another, we congratulate one another,” James said, expanding the conversation from just Paul to all of the banana boat group: James, Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade. “But it never goes to the trash talking side. It’s never been in our DNA, it’s never been who we’ve been about throughout our career since our brotherhood started. It’s pretty damn cool to see CP right there, I’m right there in assists. Guys coming from small cities, Winston-Salem and Akron, Ohio. … To do what we’re doing today, that’s pretty cool.”
Since we last spoke ...
- Rob Pelinka received a contract extension and a new title last week, prompting both James and Vogel to declare how deserving he was of the promotion. When the Lakers hired Pelinka they knew there would be some growing pains for the first-time general manager, but Lakers co-owner Jeanie Buss remained confident in his ability. In giving him the extension and title of vice president of basketball operations, Buss showed she’s pleased with the way he’s run the Lakers.
- Anthony Davis made the last trip with the Lakers for back-to-back games against the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder, but he didn’t play in either game. It was no matter for the Lakers, who beat Dallas last Friday. Then Saturday came and seemed like a scheduled loss. James got the night off because of a nasty cold, Davis was still out, and Danny Green didn’t play. But even without three starters, the Lakers produced a dominant win over a pretty talented team. Kyle Kuzma scored 36 points.
- You might recall Rajon Rondo started his Lakers career by getting into a fight with Paul. It’s still simmering. Rondo injured his finger against the Thunder, and believes he was the recipient of a dirty play by Paul.
- Kuzma got a chance to shine with Davis and James out. He insisted he doesn’t care about trade talk and simply played well.
- Cleveland put up a fight against the Lakers, but once James locked in, there was little the Cavaliers could do to stop it. And Howard hit another three.
- His Lakers won three games without him and so Davis joked that it didn’t look like they needed him. Vogel wasn’t interested in continuing the joke.
- After winning nine games in a row, some under exigent circumstances, the Lakers finally lost. Their loss to the Orlando Magic was the first they’ve had this season to a team with a losing record. I also received emails chastising me for not including this in my game story: the Lakers missed two dunks during that game and several free throws.
- James remains atop All-Star fan voting and Alex Caruso has climbed to fourth. Remember, fans get only 50% of the vote for choosing starters, so it’s still unlikely their efforts will get Caruso in there.