On Pro Basketball: LeBron James Was Supposed to Make the Lakers Great. But When?
ATLANTA — Kyle Kuzma had his first interaction with LeBron James a little more than a year ago, when Kuzma was a first-year forward with the Los Angeles Lakers and James was a few months from dragging the Cleveland Cavaliers to another appearance in the N.B.A. finals. Kuzma had reached out by phone, hoping for some tips.
“Just wanted to see how one of the greats takes care of his body and has so much longevity,” Kuzma recalled this week in an interview. “Everybody wants to play basketball for as long as possible.”
So much has changed since that initial conversation. Kuzma and James are teammates now, and Kuzma is experiencing the unique challenges that come with playing alongside one of the game’s behemoths. At the same time, James’s body finally betrayed him this season, which has only heightened the sense of urgency within the organization: The Lakers, who have missed the playoffs for five years running, are not in position for a patient rebuild.
James, at 34, may still be in his prime, but the stakes are already high for a franchise that desperately wants to maximize his time in Los Angeles. And while neither James nor Lakers management has shown much enthusiasm for coaxing along a young core — the Lakers tried to ship half the roster to New Orleans last week — they are stuck in this together. James was supposed to be the savior of a flagship franchise gone astray; salvaging the final months of this year would be a key indicator that he still wields that type of power.
“We have to approach the rest of the season just like you would during the playoffs,” Kuzma said.
As Kuzma recalled his talk with James, he had no way of knowing that the Lakers were mere hours from suffering one final implosion before the N.B.A. All-Star break — a 117-113 loss to the Atlanta Hawks that left the team with a losing record and ample opportunity for soul searching.
“It’s time for us to get away and reflect a little bit about where we are as a group,” Coach Luke Walton said. “I think this first part of the season, we’ve gone through a lot of adversity. And we’re probably not where we want to be, but we’re still close enough.”
Close enough, that is, for vying for a spot in the playoffs, which was both an indication of the team’s modest goals and its sad reality. At 28-29, the Lakers are in 10th place in the Western Conference standings. It is unfamiliar territory for James, who has not been on a losing team this late in a season since he was a first-year forward with the Cavaliers.
“But with LeBron on your team, anything is possible,” said Mychal Thompson, a power forward for the “Showtime”-era Lakers and an analyst for the team’s radio broadcasts. “I mean, look at some of the teams he’s taken to the finals — including last season. He’s capable of doing great things if you just get on board and run with him.”
The Lakers, though, seem fragile after nearly five months of drama — all of it stemming directly or indirectly from the $154 million deal that James signed to join the team last summer. The pressure was on from the start, and little has gone according to plan.
“There’s been more noise this year,” Walton said, “but that was to be expected with the moves in the off-season. That was something to be anticipated.”
Where to begin? Brandon Ingram and Rajon Rondo were suspended for trying to brawl with the Houston Rockets two games into the season. Magic Johnson, the team’s outspoken president of basketball operations, chastised Walton in a closed-door meeting for the team’s slow start, igniting lasting questions about Walton’s job security. Nearly every player on the roster has been injured, and that includes James, who missed 17 games with a strained groin.
And lest we forget: Last week, Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka tried to trade away nearly half the roster to the New Orleans Pelicans for Anthony Davis, who, before the start of the season, hired the same agent who represents James. It was the clearest sign yet that Johnson is willing to attempt the very boldest moves — no matter the residual damage.
Consider that the Lakers, amid their ultimately fruitless effort to pry Davis away from the Pelicans, lost by 42 points to the Indiana Pacers. And with rumors of which Lakers would be traded swirling through social media, it was difficult to find arguments in their defense — even from James himself.
Kuzma, who was offered up as one of the pieces in a potential deal, said it had been difficult to drown out the noise.
“It’s definitely tough,” he said, “because this generation, you’re always on your phone, always on social media, always seeing it somewhere on TV.”
But the trade deadline passed, and the roster more or less remained intact. There had been a sense that a surprising win against the Boston Celtics on Feb. 7 would galvanize the team in the wake of so much uncertainty. And even after losing to the Philadelphia 76ers three days later, the Lakers still had a chance to build some momentum against the Hawks on Tuesday.
Before the game, James appeared to be in an upbeat mood. In the locker room, he knelt on a giant inflatable ball as he worked on some core-strengthening exercises. He crooned the lyrics to “Plug Walk” by the hip-hop artist Rich the Kid. He made small talk with Ingram. It was all vintage James.
About three hours later, once the Lakers had punctuated their loss with a turnover, James made a beeline off the court and into the tunnel. He was practically steaming. He had finished with his fifth triple-double of the season — 28 points, 16 assists, 11 rebounds — but the Lakers’ defense was as porous as a coffee filter, and the result was just as messy.
“I can throw that game in the trash,” James said.
In a three-minute postgame session with reporters, Kuzma mentioned the concept of “fun” five times — specifically, the notion that the Lakers were not having much of it.
“A lot of times we’re out there with sad faces, very focused faces,” Kuzma said. “But I think we’re at our best when we’re having fun.”
Fun may not be the primary objective for James, and the psychic effects of the loss are sure to linger until at least Feb. 21, when their season will resume after the All-Star break with a home game against the Houston Rockets. For now, though, the best thing for these players may be to be away from each other for a while, which was one of Walton’s suggestions before they parted for the break.
“Spend some time by yourself,” he said, and added: “I think we’ve got a group that will be ready by the time we get back.”