CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In the NBA equivalent of the teacher telling the class, “Pencils down,” because test time is over, the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Charlotte Hornets 124-118 on Monday to improve to 27-25 and now will wait to see what happens to their team leading up to Thursday’s trade deadline.
The victory assured L.A. a successful 4-2 road trip and extended its win streak to three — the longest the Lakers have strung together since winning four straight in early December, culminating in winning the in-season tournament championship in Las Vegas.
While wins over quality opponents such as the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks were encouraging, and even the Hornets win required some temerity to stave off a late run by a young ballclub playing with no pressure, Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka was “stuck on calls” all day, a team source told ESPN, discussing potential deals.
Should anything materialize, L.A.’s roster could look a lot different the next time it takes the court Thursday night against the defending champion Denver Nuggets.
After a run to the Western Conference finals last spring, L.A. is No. 9 in the West and would need to catch the No. 6 Phoenix Suns, who are three games ahead with 30 games left, to avoid the play-in tournament.
The Lakers’ best point-of-attack defender, Jarred Vanderbilt, was diagnosed with a right midfoot sprain on Monday that will keep him out at least the next three to four weeks before being reevaluated, and their backup point guard, Gabe Vincent, continues to be sidelined with a knee injury after having played only five games so far this season.
With the Lakers facing those indisputable challenges, while also ranking 20th in offense and 14th in defense overall, LeBron James was asked whether he believes the team is good enough as currently constructed to win a championship or if changes would be prudent.
“It’s not a question for me,” James said after closing out the road trip with 26 points on 12-for-22 shooting — including several rim-rattling dunks — in 40 minutes to secure the win. “I love who we have in the locker room. And that’s all I worry about.”
James added: “We’re going to go out and prepare ourselves every single night no matter what it is. No matter who’s out on this team. No matter what.”
The only Laker to outscore James on Monday was D’Angelo Russell, who led the team with 28 points and added six assists.
Russell’s name has been mentioned in trade talks with the Brooklyn Nets, Toronto Raptors and Atlanta Hawks in recent weeks, sources told ESPN, while the point guard managed to play some of the best basketball of his career.
Over his past 16 games, since returning from a bruised tailbone, Russell has averaged 22.2 points on 46.3% shooting (44.9% from 3) with 2.3 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game, and L.A. went 10-6.
“I don’t care. At all,” Russell said when asked how he will deal with the speculation leading up to the deadline. “Show up to work. That’s it.”
When asked to elaborate, the 27-year-old alluded to the terms of his $17.3 million contract, which includes an $18.7 million player option for next season, as a simple fact of being a size that could fit into a plethora of potential deals.
“I mean, I can’t control that my contract makes sense to be traded, either,” Russell said. “So, I mean, just play. You can’t control that. Once again, I don’t care. At all.”
Russell could have avoided this situation in the summertime when he re-upped with the Lakers. The nature of his contract would have included an implied no-trade clause; however, he and his agent waived that stipulation.
Russell was asked to explain why he chose to waive his ability to block any trade this season.
“I just thought it made sense,” Russell said. “Obviously I’ve been here before, I played for the Lakers before, so I know what the requirements are to be successful here are. So, if you’re part of the future here you’ll be successful. If you’re not, you’ll get traded. And I’ve been traded before here. So, my approach is just a little different.
“I really just genuinely, humbly don’t care because I know I can’t control it, one. And, two, I just won’t allow my mind to go there. I like to focus on this and you guys see how I’ve been focusing on basketball and not comments and what’s trending on social.”
While their play hasn’t always meshed perfectly this season, Russell’s and James’ answers were certainly in sync in Charlotte.
Until something happens, the players’ responsibility is to do their jobs, business as usual.
“This is who we have,” James said. “So there’s nothing else to talk about.”