Two seasons ago, the Los Angeles Lakers‘ last game played before the trade deadline felt like a referendum on the state of the franchise — a 42-point blowout loss at the Indiana Pacers as rumors swirled. Tuesday’s 128-111 road loss to the New Orleans Pelicans wasn’t that for the Lakers, they are the defending NBA champions after all, but the resulting angst was eerily reminiscent.
“You’ve got to be realistic,” Kyle Kuzma said afterward, left to be the default player spokesman with LeBron James and Anthony Davis both out due to injuries. “It’s a challenge. But it’s not nothing that we can’t overcome.”
The Pelicans game got ugly, with the Lakers trailing by as many as 30 points — which happened to coincide with the number of points they were outscored by in the paint (62-32) — while they were without their best defender in Davis and their starting center, Marc Gasol, who missed his ninth straight game as he ramps up after a stint in the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
When the 2019 Lakers bottomed out in Indiana, the tension stemmed from the team’s pursuit of Davis, with L.A.’s young collection of budding stars wondering if the sun was coming down on the starts to their careers in Southern California.
These Lakers aren’t in an identical situation. Some of those young players from two years ago were on the other side of things Tuesday, with Brandon Ingram leading all scorers with 36 points on 14-for-21 shooting and Josh Hart notching 15 rebounds, five assists and five steals even though he shot only 1-for-9. (Their angst at the deadline in February 2019 wasn’t unfounded — the Davis trade with the Pelicans went through four months later).
No, the Lakers aren’t looking to make wholesale changes to land a second star to pair with James this time around. They have their franchise pillars, albeit one is in a walking boot and the other hasn’t played since Valentine’s Day.
However, there is still pressure to improve around the margins and boost their championship chances come the postseason. For much of the season, that looked like it would involve perusing the buyout market for an impact veteran or two, much the way L.A. added Markieff Morris last year, and he became a vital piece during their run in the bubble.
But now, on a three-game losing streak, bringing the Lakers’ record to 7-10 since Davis got hurt and falling to No. 4 in the Western Conference standings — just 2 ½ games up on No. 6 Portland — those plans could be adjusted.
“I think it certainly will impact what our mindset is come trade deadline time,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said over the weekend when asked about the state of his team.
One name mentioned as a potential candidate to be moved is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The shooting guard was rewarded with a three-year, $40 million deal coming off a postseason in which he averaged 10.7 points on 37.8% from 3-point distance while being one of the most reliable perimeter defenders the Lakers had, but he has seen his 3-point percentage dip this season from 52.9% in December, to 46.0% in January to 32.1% in February, until coming back to 37.5% this month before Tuesday’s 1-for-7 shooting night. Asked about the spot…