James, an expert at using both subtle and obvious ways of putting pressure on his teams to make changes, seemed to poke at the Lakers throughout his All-Star experience. His comments about Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti had to be viewed against current Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka’s inability to find a move at the trade deadline.
And James’ admission to the Athletic’s Jason Lloyd that he hadn’t closed the door on a return to Cleveland and that he’d be spending the end of his career playing alongside his son, Bronny, were the kinds of comments the Lakers need to take seriously.
Under contract with the team for just one more season, James has sent a strong message — let’s get better and let’s do it quickly.
The trouble, of course, is that James played a large role in putting together this flawed roster. And secondarily, the pathways for the Lakers to do things differently in the upcoming offseason are still fairly limited.
Pelinka, sitting courtside Sunday during the All-Star game, couldn’t have missed what was transpiring in front of him. While the ability of the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry to dominate a game has mostly been unchanged over the last decade, a new crop of All-Stars are making the NBA even younger, more athletic and more dangerous.
Pelinka’s team has struggled to compete with the Memphis Grizzlies and Ja Morant, the first-time All-Star comfortably sliding into a spot as one of the league’s most exciting stars.
Videos of a very boozed-up Morant traveling to Cleveland went viral, with the third-year guard stealing the show Saturday by unapologetically using his first All-Star game as an excuse to have as much fun as possible.
“Where I’m from, [it doesn’t] happen often that people make it out and be able to put on for the city in the right way,” Morant said. “I had the opportunity, and I’m just living it out right now. I normally sit and think about stuff like that when I’m by myself. I don’t like being too emotional or anything around people.
“So I can say that’s pretty much why I was lit on the flight. On the way there, you know, I feel like that’s when it hit me that I actually made All-Star, and it was only right that I celebrate it.”
And as Morant’s star grows, the Grizzlies will only become more dangerous — the kind of team the Lakers (27-31 and in ninth place in the Western Conference) could see in the early stages of the playoffs if they’re able to make it to — and through — the play-in tournament.
And then there are last year’s finalists, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns. While people, at times, dismissed last year’s successes as fluky during a season defined by injuries and the pandemic, they both have to be considered among the biggest favorites to win their conferences again.
James talked Sunday about the responsibility of being the face of the league. It sure seemed like the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo would be comfortable in that role — he and his brothers participating Saturday night before he was one of the biggest stars Sunday.
While Chris Paul’s thumb injury puts some doubt on the Suns’ immediate fortunes, those teams have successfully surrounded their biggest stars with the right players — a combination of roster building through the draft, free agency and trades.
The path forward for the Lakers will require tremendous creativity. Perhaps there’s a palatable trade to be made this summer when the team can deal Russell Westbrook with a pair of first-round picks for players they view as a better fit.
And maybe they can strike gold with some minimum signings like they did with Malik Monk (though retaining him will be difficult).
But it seems clear that James won’t accept failure — and the Lakers, employers of an impatient superstar, are going to be expected to act.
And it’s not going to matter to him that the odds and options to catch the best in the NBA are bad.