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Newsletter: LeBron James says the Lakers have enough to compete for championship

Lakers forward LeBron James drives again Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie as center Dwight Howard (39) cuts to the basket during a game on Jan. 23, 2020, at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Lakers forward LeBron James drives against Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie as center Dwight Howard (39) cuts to the basket during a game Thursday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
(Mike Stobe / Getty Images)

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

As January began, Lakers coach Frank Vogel described this portion of the season as the “dog days.” The excitement of the start of the season has worn off, the playoffs are still months away. It can be hard for teams to find motivation on a daily basis, and hard to avoid slip-ups.

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We’ve seen that manifest itself in the Lakers with some slow starts. They’ve paid for it at times, like against the Orlando Magic at home and the Boston Celtics on the road.

Their loss to the Celtics really showed what can happen when that kind of lapse in effort happens against a good team. Against the Magic they were able to recover and nearly win. Against the Celtics they suffered their worst loss of the season — it was a game in which they were never competitive.

The Lakers will have another big test on Saturday. The Philadelphia 76ers entered the season expected to be an elite team in the league. They are 29-17 after a 107-95 loss to Toronto. They are talented and will be motivated against the Lakers, as all teams are. It will be a chance for the Lakers to redeem the loss in Boston in a way that defeating the Knicks and Brooklyn Nets on back-to-back nights can’t do.

We’ll catch up on everything that’s happened during the last week, but first let’s chat about the trade deadline again.

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LeBron James says Lakers have enough

After the Lakers beat the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday night, LeBron James was asked if he thinks the Lakers are one piece away from being the best team in the league. His answer was smart and nuanced.

“We have enough right now,” James said. “But it’s not about competing and worrying about June, it’s about worrying about January. And if we continue to get better throughout January and we move on to February and continue to get better.”

There’s been a noted effort from James to avoid controversy with his comments this season. Last year he told ESPN that it would be “amazing, like, duh” if the Lakers traded for All-Star forward Anthony Davis. Coincidentally, that comment came before a Lakers loss in Brooklyn.

In the ensuing fallout he said anyone would love to have one of the best players in the league on his team, and he would have given the same response about a number of other players, listing many. That was certainly true. But it was still an awkward storyline for locker-room chemistry. It led to fans in Indiana chanting at the Lakers’ young players, “LeBron’s gonna trade you,” a comment that stung because it felt real and immediate to those guys.

This season’s Lakers have terrific chemistry, in part because many of them are in a similar stage of their careers. Everyone from the front office down notices and appreciates that, even as team executives explore ways to potentially improve.

James was asked earlier this month about Cleveland Cavaliers big men Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson as potential trade pieces and declined to answer. It wasn’t even a question related to the Lakers, but James wanted no part of stirring up another controversy so he just bit his lower lip and shook his head.

On Thursday night he had another opportunity to support his teammates.

“We’re a really good team but we’re not a great team yet,” James said. “And we shouldn’t be. We’ve just now been put together in September. And from September to now, we’re a better team. And if we continue this trend, then we’ll put ourselves in a position where we can compete for a championship and have a chance. And in this league and in sports in general, all you want is a chance.”

These kinds of comments don’t mean the Lakers won’t make a trade before the Feb. 6 deadline, but it does mean James wants it known he believes in the players they have.

At one point during the game, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope went to the free-throw line and the Nets cheering section revived an old chant for him.

“LeBron’s gonna trade you!” they chanted gleefully.

Caldwell-Pope’s ability to veto a trade aside, the chant felt hollow.

Since we last spoke ...

  • At the season’s halfway point, I took a look at one factor that’s been so crucial to the Lakers — their team chemistry.
  • Bill Plaschke checked in with Kobe Bryant to see how Bryant would feel when James passed him on the all-time scoring list. Bryant encouraged Laker fans to embrace the moment. He said he won’t attend the game (likely Saturday night in Philadelphia) to allow James to have the moment to himself. But he will call James after it happens.
  • The Lakers didn’t have Davis against the Houston Rockets, but they pulled out a win anyway. It took a second-half commitment to defense and not fouling Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
  • Before the Rockets game, Vogel talked about how he will sometimes try out things during the season that might come in handy in the playoffs. The Rockets game provided an example of that. Our Dan Woike explored that topic.
  • A big part of how the Lakers contained Houston’s Westbrook was Kyle Kuzma. I took a look at how Kuzma has developed defensively, and how he continues to try to shed the narrative that he doesn’t play defense.
  • Davis returned to action against the Celtics on Monday, but the game was an unmitigated disaster for the Lakers.
  • James’ son Bronny takes a lot of heat for being LeBron James Jr. In a Sierra Canyon High game in Springfield, Mass., on Monday, someone threw something at Bronny while he sat on the bench. The game was stopped and the fan was ejected. LeBron, naturally, was quite upset when he later saw the footage.
  • James then got to New York on Tuesday and surprised a group of kids at a YMCA in Harlem. There is a lot of cynicism about why James does the things he does, but it was a nice moment to see the reaction of the kids in that room who couldn’t believe their luck that they were about to meet LeBron James.
  • Dwight Howard finally admitted he’s participating in the dunk contest. Some interesting tidbits about that: 1) He reached out to the league about participating, not the other way around. 2) He said he wants Bryant to help him on a dunk.
  • James was aggressive against the Knicks in the first half on Wednesday, scoring 19 points. At the time he was 66 points away from passing Bryant on the all-time scoring list and it made me wonder if he was going for it that night at Madison Square Garden, his favorite arena. But then in the second half, he began to pull back. He could see Davis was a little out of rhythm and worked to get him going. It worked.
  • Similar story with some tweaks on Thursday night in Brooklyn. James was very aggressive in the first half, leading me to wonder if he wanted all 45 points it would take to pass Bryant that night. He finished with 27 and is now 18 points away.
  • Jared Dudley made a buzzer-beater at the end of the third quarter and the entire Lakers bench went completely nuts. James hip-bumped him twice in a row because he was so excited.
  • All-Star game starters were announced with James the captain of his team. He declined to commit to picking Davis with his first selection, flat out saying “no” when Davis himself asked him, to laughs. With their win Thursday night, the Lakers coaching staff clinched the opportunity to coach Team LeBron in Chicago.
Until next time...
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