LeBron back in fold, but other issues still on Lakers' minds

NBA.com Global on Feb 02, 2019 08:48 AM
LeBron back in fold, but other issues still on Lakers' minds
FILE - DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 27: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers dunks the ball against the Denver Nuggets on November 27, 2018 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Shaun Powell, NBA.com

Well, scratch one name off the Los Angeles Lakers’ wait list. LeBron James has finally reported for duty, and who would’ve thought he’d beat Anthony Davis to the team’s lineup?

Five weeks felt like forever to the franchise as they sweated out LeBron’s 17-game absence from a groin injury. It was the first injury of any concern in his 16-year career, and given his workload over such time, maybe that will serve as one of the more amazing feats by LeBron.

A sense of normalcy crept back into the Lakers’ season if only for a night when LeBron suited up Thursday (Friday, PHl time), played 40 minutes without a hiccup, and -- on the surface anyway -- all seemed well.

That doesn’t mean all is well.

All is very confusing.

The Lakers are juggling a pair of sensitive uncertainties: Davis and whether they can swing a deal to acquire the New Orleans Pelicans’ All-NBA player … and the Western Conference playoff chase.

The Davis dilemma has the more urgent expiration date. Thursday’s (Friday, PHl time) deadline means one way or another, the Lakers will have clarity on one of the more uncomfortable scenarios in recent memory. And when there’s finally a verdict, and no matter what it is, there will be a sense of relief (to an extent).

That’s because the young core of the Lakers are essentially being held hostage while the club enthusiastically tries to pawn one of two or all of them off in order to get Davis. Imagine being Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and/or Josh Hart now and figuring out what they’re going through. This Davis trade request is in their heads.

They don’t know if by next week they’ll be passing the ball to LeBron or … E’Twuan Moore. They don’t know if they’ll be playing in L.A. or … La. They don’t know if LeBron, whose agency also represents Davis and is helping to orchestrate his New Orleans exit, has their back or is sticking a fork in it behind the scenes.

There’s so much at work here, so many moving parts, so much head scratching.

By all indications, there are exploratory conversations between the Lakers and Pelicans about what it will take to land Davis. The Lakers are dangling young players and Draft picks, and that might not be enough.

Meanwhile, the Pelicans are dealing with their own prickly situation. The trade request caused a measure of saltiness and the front office doesn’t appear to be warm to the idea of having Davis around. The Pelicans scrubbed him from their pre-game video intros, as though he doesn’t exist anymore. He’s still on the team bench during games but it’s a weird optic. Davis is with a team he doesn’t feel is good enough for him anymore.

In a perfect world, the Pelicans would take their time and weigh considerable offers from other teams, but that may stretch until this summer. Davis’ contract only runs one more season. If he tells other teams he won’t sign an extension with them, he can sabotage deals. Why would those teams surrender assets for a one-year rental?

The stare-down continues as the weekend approaches and LeBron returns to face the league-leading Golden State Warriors in Oakland on Saturday (Sunday, PHL time).

“With LeBron back, we have to adjust again as to how we play,” said coach Luke Walton. “But he looked fine to me.”

He was initially on a 25-minute restriction Thursday (Friday, PHL time), but played the entire overtime in the Lakers’ win. He was feeling and looking stronger as the game progressed, finishing with 24 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists.

“I’m about 80 (percent) right now,” James said. “It’s going to take me a while to get my rhythm back. We got a lot of games coming up. I want to see how my body feels tomorrow after playing tonight. Toughest stretch of my career. I worked my butt off to get back to this point.

“I wasn’t positive every day throughout this process. There were times when I felt great and thought I could come back faster. It wasn’t reacting the right way so I had to be patient. I’d never been injured before like that. I didn’t come here to put on a suit everyday. I came here to put on a jersey, when you see your team struggle and you can’t help them in a suit and tie, that was frustrating.”

The Lakers went 6-11 without LeBron and dropped games to the likes of the New York Knicks, Sacramento Kings, Cleveland Cavaliers and two to the Minnesota Timberwolves. It was unsightly and discouraging at times, and the losing -- combined with LeBron’s sense of mortality -- perhaps kick-started the Davis chase. Perhaps team president Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka (with input from LeBron) decided it’s time to get into the express lane, at the expense of youth, and quicken the process.

“I’m excited about being back out there with my guys,” James said. “We’re ready for the challenge. We want to get back into a groove and get a playoff spot. That’s what I’m here fore, that’s what we’re here for.”

The playoff chase begins in earnest for any team in the West with those aspirations. To reach 48 wins, which should be enough for a playoff spot, the Lakers need to win 21 of their last 30. And given the stiff competition out West, that likely means LeBron will need to play meaningful games in April -- a time which normally would call for rest -- and perform at a high level, too.

Keep in mind if the Lakers are gutted to get Davis, the supporting cast around the two stars will be depleted. In such a case, the real pursuit of the Warriors wouldn’t realistically begin until next season. Even that depends on what else the Lakers can do this summer with their salary-cap surplus.

Remember, LeBron is 34 … and just sat for the longest stretch of his career.

When you sign LeBron, the end game is a championship or at the very least, a reasonable chase. The Lakers are getting him on the back end, so in this situation, there’s a clock and the Lakers are on it.

Time is ticking on their chances of getting Davis this season in what would be a major shakeup.

And time is also ticking on their playoff pursuit, which if it fails, would be a major letdown.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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