The Los Angeles Lakers, a Western Conference NBA team currently four games south of .500, are in the deepest trough in a season that’s been full of them. They are probably going to wind up with the ninth seed in the Western Conference, but only because every team below them in the standings is either actively tanking or based in Sacramento. L.A. should consider themselves lucky to be ninth, as their 27-31 record would have them tied with the Wizards for 11th in the East. One could mount an argument that a fully intact version of the Lakers could maybe push the Clippers or Wolves in the standings, but the West’s top six is full of functional teams, Russell Westbrook is broken, and Anthony Davis is hurt yet again, so LeBron James will now have made every play-in round since he called for the person who created the play-in to be fired. And that grim rundown doesn’t even take into account the apparent discord brewing between jostling factions within the organization.
The biggest story to come out of All-Star weekend was not Cade Cunningham’s Rising Stars MVP award, but rather the news that James and his representatives over at Klutch Sports, chiefly Rich Paul, are unhappy with Lakers management. James has now endured two consecutive putrid seasons with a lifeless supporting cast, so some frustration is certainly in order. The reader will surely note that the most consequential move the Lakers made last offseason was swapping their bench for Westbrook, who is almost unplayable at the ends of close games, at the request of James after he held a bunch of summer meetings and essentially picked Westbrook over Damian Lillard. That disastrous choice (to the degree that it was an either-or choice) reflects poorly on both sides, and no matter who ultimately holds fault, losing one million games in embarrassing fashion is going to exacerbate existing tensions within any team.
According to Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus, the simmering conflict “reached a boil” when Lakers GM Rob Pelinka then didn’t try to redeem the Westbrook mistake by swapping Westbrook and a first-rounder for Klutch client (klient?) John Wall. Paul, for his part, called Stephen A. Smith and got him to relay a message: “He wanted me to state emphatically that there was absolutely, positively, no truth to that whatsoever. He never did that. He did not do that,” Smith said. Smith added that Paul wanted him to tell the world that the noise about an aborted Westbrook-Wall trade was a “damn lie” and an “absolute lie.” Fair enough, though it is worth noting that Paul merely disputed that specific aspect of Pincus’s reporting, and not the point of it all, which is that Klutch and the Lakers are on increasingly shaky ground.
For more evidence on that front, let us now turn to James himself, who spent All-Star weekend back home in Cleveland singling out all manner of non-Lakers’ personnel for praise, beginning with Thunder GM Sam Presti. “The MVP over there is Sam Presti. He’s the MVP,” James said, praising his eye for talent, and concluding that he was “pretty damn good.” He also said he’d be open to playing for the Cavs again someday, at some unspecified future date that’s made even murkier, since, in his words, “I don’t know what my future holds. I don’t even know when I’m free.” James praised Cavs management for doing an “unbelievable job drafting and making trades.” If you would like a third piece of passive-agressive praise of non-Lakers GMs, here he is toasting Rams GM Les Snead’s “Fuck Them Picks” t-shirt.
Since he left Cleveland for the first time 12 years ago, James’s teams have traded their first-round picks with regularity. The only two first-rounders LeBron has shared the court with in that span are Norris Cole and Moritz Wagner, who both stink. Remember too that James had the Cavs trade No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love shortly after signing for Cleveland in 2014. The Lakers are currently out two picks and a swap thanks to the Anthony Davis deal, which also required them to flip the fourth pick in the 2018 draft to New Orleans. It makes sense that you would leverage future assets in order to maximize your chances of winning with a guy who was the best player in the league for like 15 years, and James has won four championships, so the approach has worked. Those picks are somewhat irrelevant if the team trading them is good enough to pick near the bottom of the first round every year, but you start to get bad memories of the Brooklyn Nets-Boston Celtics disaster when your team is 27-31 with an unhappy superstar, an injured superstar, and a basketball void you are paying like a superstar for one more season.
The uncertainty that’s animating this Klutch-Lakers beef is that James will be a free agent after next season. He’ll be 38 then, on the cusp of his 21st NBA season. By singling out a bunch of other GMs for praise and raising the specter of a return to Cleveland or a link-up with his son Bronny, James is exercising the tremendous leverage he has over the Lakers franchise. The degree to which the Westbrook fiasco is his fault is irrelevant, since he’s far more important to the fate of the franchise than Pelinka, and his agency’s growing sway within the NBA means the Lakers almost have to play ball. Maybe he should have turned the heat up, you know, before the trade deadline, but after what looks like an early exit from the playoffs, he’ll have a nice long offseason to engineer whatever comes next.