BOSTON — LeBron James figured out an essential truth years ago: The quietest place in the storm is the eerie calm of the middle. He’s grown so comfortable amid the maelstrom surrounding him that it may as well be his second home.
On Thursday morning, the center of the storm was the far baseline at TD Garden where LeBron was surrounded by the usual semicircle of microphones and cameras that hang on his every word. Mere hours before a trade deadline that saw a record number of deals, it was just another day at the office for James. When he had fulfilled his media obligations, LeBron chatted amiably with a handful of familiar reporters while the other Lakers finished up their routines.
By 3 p.m. two of his teammates — Michael Beasley and Ivica Zubac — would be gone. The other Lakers would still be there after the deadline was over, including the young core of players who have had their names front and center as part of a pursuit of Anthony Davis that ultimately proved futile.
That effort was led by AD’s agent Rich Paul — who also happens to represent James and is one of his closest confidants. Paul’s mission was to orchestrate a trade, preferably to LeBron’s Lakers. When that looked more and more like a nonstarter, LeBron’s teammates found themselves cast as pawns in what some believe was a campaign designed to strike back at Paul’s attempted coup.
As the rumored demands emanating from New Orleans became more and more outrageous, the message being sent was that the young Laker core simply wasn’t that compelling. It all bubbled over in an embarrassing loss to Indiana on Tuesday that served as the largest of LeBron’s career. Being able to handle the chaos that follows James is a job requirement, and the young Lakers have thus far proven less than worthy.
“I don’t know, that’s a question for those guys,” James said when asked if the pressure of the deadline was bothering his teammates. “It’s just all part of the business, and when you truly understand that, and you truly know this is a business, but you give 110 percent to whatever situation you’re in, then you’re able to live with it. But I know this has to be tough on guys that for the first time in their career, especially if you’re a young guy, to hear your name in trade rumors when you’ve been somewhere for a few years.”
The deals the Lakers did make spoke to a subtle course correction. Having spent the summer loading up on playmakers at the expense of shooting, the Lakers added the kind of veteran shooters in Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala that should thrive playing with LeBron and the still vital Rajon Rondo.
The Bullock deal was a nice one. He’s young and has come into his own as a role player in Detroit where he and Blake Griffin made an artform of dribble handoffs. The Muscala move was more curious as it came at the expense of 21-year-old Zubac who has admirably held down the center position. Yet, now there’s a sliver of shooting to put around LeBron where before there was little.
While Bullock and Muscala are solid additions, they’re hardly the kind of stars one needs to compete for championships. The Lakers have been unable to land a second star to complement James, and not even Paul’s considerable clout was enough to make it happen. An uncomfortable question lingers at the heart of LeBron’s LA story: If not AD, then who?
Paul George happily re-signed in Oklahoma City over the summer rather than return home to play with LeBron. Whispers that have turned into screams have Kevin Durant likely headed to New York. Kawhi Leonard appears to have eyes for LA’s other team, the Clippers. Even with the caveat that no one knows what the hell Kyrie Irving will do, a reunion with James seems unlikely.
If their reluctance to cast their lot with LeBron isn’t an outright refutation of his preeminence, it’s at least a declaration of their desire to forge their own path. The irony is that this generation of stars are merely following the blueprint that LeBron introduced years ago.
To be a star in this league is to have power, but only if you choose to utilize it and only if you are prepared to deal with the fallout. The outline is simple: Trade a modicum of contractual security for freedom of movement and leave yourself as many options as possible. And if that fails, stare down your current team until they blink.
Unfettered star movement has fueled the league’s ascent from pleasant winter diversion into a 365-day trending topic driven by trade talk and endless free agent speculation. The run-up to the trade deadline became such a focus of activity that it even overtook the mighty NFL during Super Bowl week.
“We’re all actors in a soap opera,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr noted. “We really are. And we have to deal with that part of it.”
Dealing with it has proven far more difficult than LeBron makes it appear. Rather than take control over their situations, KD and Kyrie spent part of the last week railing at the media rumor mongering they could have quashed with a few bland quotes.
Appearing for the first time since his trade demand was made public, Davis appeared uncomfortable and awkward. For his part, Kawhi remained an enigma, his silence speaking volumes about his disinterest in yielding to the larger forces at work. An effective, if unsettling, strategy for his current team in Toronto.
LeBron, meanwhile, blithely went about his business understanding that it’s all a part of the game that he played a large role in creating. He also understands better than anyone that the only power he could possibly concede at this point is to let others craft his narrative for him.
“There’s nothing I need to get in this league that I don’t already have,” James said, not incorrectly. “Everything else for me is just like icing on the cake. I love the process of everything I go through to be able to compete every single night and put teams in position to compete for championships. But there’s nothing I’m chasing or feel like I need to end my career on.”
So, what now? If you squint hard enough, you can still see the contours of a good Laker team that combines youthful energy with veteran savvy. They were in fine position before James missed 18 games with a groin injury and there’s no reason they can’t regain that status before the end of the season.
Against the Celtics later that night, Kyle Kuzma rained down 3’s while Brandon Ingram played inspired defense against Irving. When the game threatened to get away from them late in the second quarter, LeBron morphed from vaguely disinterested bystander into full on freight train.
The Lakers erased an 18-point lead and built an edge heading into the fourth quarter. They rallied again down the stretch with LeBron leading a furious comeback that ended when Tyson Chandler smartly kept a loose ball alive where it found Rondo’s oversized hand for the game-winner at the buzzer.
The former Celtic soon found himself engulfed by the very team that seemed on the edge of a breakdown just 48 hours ago. Their sense of unbridled joy only added to the feeling of relief.
“I don’t want to say, ‘needed it,’” embattled Laker coach Luke Walton said. “But winning helps.”
Winning solves most problems in this league and in the wake of Thursday’s deadline activity, the Lakers have a path back to postseason contention. It’s not a clear path with three teams vying for one spot, but it does exist.
While the Clippers traded their best player for little more than cap space, they still have enough DGAF vets to make a creditable run. The Kings are the opposite: young, hungry, and fortified by the addition of Harrison Barnes. The Lakers have LeBron and it’s not hard to remember him emerging from an equally unsettled mess just last season with Cleveland.
“If I’m healthy and we’re a connected group, I think we can make a push,” he said. “That’s all it’s about.”
For now, anyway, that is all it’s about. It didn’t go unnoticed that LeBron’s first three picks for his All-Star squad were Durant, Irving, and Leonard, free agents all. And with his first pick of reserves, he chose Anthony Davis.
Consumable NBA thoughts
In the words of a scout, the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs is, “Going to be a motherf—er.” Milwaukee, Toronto, and Philly all loaded up at the deadline while the Celtics did what they needed to do to position themselves for their long-awaited pursuit of Anthony Davis. Let’s recast the Eastern contenders in the wake of the transactional flood.
With a top-five offense and defense translating into the best point differential in the league, the Bucks were the odds-on favorite to come out of the East even before the deadline. Adding a true stretch-four in Niko Mirotic to the mix only strengthens that view. Milwaukee needs space for Giannis Antetokounmpo to wreak havoc. Mirotic provides superior shooting along with a bit of rebounding and all the positional versatility you could want for the Bucks’ giant front line. The deer were already to be feared. Now they’re the hunted.
Marc Gasol may have lost a step from his All-NBA days, but he’s still a force. While acquiring him took a chunk out of Toronto’s depth, the cost wasn’t prohibitively expensive for a player of his caliber. You could say that the Raptors went all-in, but they already were after acquiring Kawhi Leonard over the summer. The trick for coach Nick Nurse will be juggling frontcourt rotations featuring Gasol, Pascal Siakam, and Serge Ibaka. As always come playoff time, expectations for the Raptors are in the eye of the beholder.
In the midst of a career season, Tobias Harris is exactly the kind of rangy, hyper-efficient stretch four the Sixers needed to flesh out their already formidable offense. Still, that’s a lot of dudes who need the ball and with Harris, Jimmy Butler, and J.J. Redick coming up on free agency, it’s a lot of dudes who will also be looking for new contracts in July. Philly GM Elton Brand is betting on talent and it will be up to coach Brett Brown to forge a cohesive unit in a short amount of time for a group that was already searching for an identity. But man, that’s a lot of freaking talent.
The Celtics opened up a roster spot by ridding themselves of Jabari Bird. That will give them the chance to utilize the mid-level exception on a veteran free agent for the stretch run and possibly serve as a salary piece of an Anthony Davis trade. With AD still in play, Danny Ainge will get his chance to swing a blockbuster deal. That was the C’s best case scenario, but the strange part of the equation is that they’re also trying to compete for a championship with the very players who will be part of an AD package. That has the potential to serve as either a unifying force or the element that tears them apart.
When the Pacers lost Victor Oladipo to a season-ending leg injury, they also lost their best shot at breaking into the top four in the East. Still, you take this team lightly at your peril. Nate McMillan’s defensive-minded squad is smart and connected, traits that will serve them well the rest of the season. Indy was quiet at the deadline, but adding Wes Matthews on the buyout market was a coup. Just one more savvy veteran to make someone uncomfortable come playoff time.
“Now y’all piling on me because I don’t want to talk to y’all about that. I have nothing to do with the Knicks. I don’t know who traded (Kristaps) Porzingis. That got nothing to do with me. I’m trying to play basketball. Y’all come in here every day, ask me about free agency, ask my teammates, my coaches, rile up the fans about it.” — Kevin Durant.
Reaction: The only thing more insufferable than blaming the media is the backlash. Still, KD’s obliviousness to the reality in which he exists would be absurd if it wasn’t so strange.
”We’re trying to win. We’re going to end that talk right now. We’re trying to win. If we don’t get that pick, lose it, we can get it back another way. There’s not been one mention of that.” — Clippers coach Doc Rivers.
Reaction: This is why it’s a good idea to separate your coach from long-term decision making. All credit to Doc, who’s reminding everyone what a fantastic coach he is, but the long view is a front office requirement. The Clippers have set themselves up exceedingly well for this summer.
“To get the players that you would want – or that extra star – we don’t have that flexibility; it’s not happening. We’re starting it; these are smaller moves on the sides but we again don’t have that flexibility to get another star to go alongside Blake [Griffin].” — Pistons general manager Ed Stefanski.
Reaction: The Pistons have been wandering in the wilderness of mediocrity for a while. Before he can even address Detroit’s lack of talent, Stefanski needs to clean up the mess leftover from the Stan Van Gundy era. Seriously, don’t let your coach be the GM.
“We had been looking for an opportunity like this. We, like the rest of the league, thought very highly of Markelle at the draft and we were just very happy when it turned out to actually be there for us to execute.” — Orlando GM Jeff Weltman after trading for Markelle Fultz.
Reaction: You won’t find anyone in the league who isn’t rooting for Fultz to get his career back on track. Orlando should be the perfect environment.
“That was definitely awkward. Boo? OK. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m going to go out there and play basketball. But hey, that’s life, man. Some people are not gonna like me. I’m just happy to be back on the floor playing the game that I love.” — Anthony Davis after returning to a mixed reaction from the New Orleans crowd.
Reaction: The next few months are going to be exceedingly awkward for everyone involved. The fallout is only beginning.