EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Looking into the rearview mirror at a season that went awry, several members of the Los Angeles Lakers spoke openly about the affect trade-deadline rumors surrounding the team’s pursuit of Anthony Davis had on the locker room.
“At the trade deadline, everybody kind of lost themselves,” Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said on Wednesday after his exit interview with coach Luke Walton and general manager Rob Pelinka. “That’s all they were worried about. And I feel like after that everybody kind of relaxed, calmed down and just started playing basketball and not worrying about the outside talk.”
L.A. went 9-15 from the time LeBron James publicly stated his interest in playing alongside Davis until the trade deadline passed, including a brutal 42-point loss to the Indiana Pacers with just days left before a deal would cease to be consummated.
The Lakers’ dealings with the New Orleans Pelicans became a hot-button issue not only for the players but for the front office. Following the deadline, team president Magic Johnson — who stepped down from his post Tuesday in a stunning turn of events — told reporters that the Pelicans did not negotiate in good faith. Weeks later, Lakers owner Jeanie Buss called reports of robust trade packages offered by L.A. for Davis “fake news.”
The uneasiness seemed to pull apart a roster that was not a natural fit to begin with, full of promising young prospects, veterans on one-year contracts and one of the game’s biggest stars in James.
“It was annoying, I guess,” said guard Josh Hart, looking back. “Nowadays everything is about social media. So we go on social media, everything’s about trades, trade deadline week, I guess. That’s all it is. We see our names, each other’s names. I guess that’s a part of that is amplified.
“Obviously because we’re in L.A., we’ve got Bron, AD did whatever AD did, so I think that amplified. … So I guess it was annoying. The media made it annoying. Social media made it annoying. But at the end of the day there was no frustration with each other. No frustration between us and the front office. We were all a collective unit, and we tried to be professionals about it. We tried to control what we can control.”
The Lakers showed some cohesiveness to finish the season out, going 6-4 in their last 10 games, but their postseason chances were long gone by then.
Rajon Rondo, one of the clear cut leaders on the team, marveled at the turnaround.
“Believe it or not, the last couple weeks we’ve been on the road, every road game or road trip we’ve been to dinner every city. Play a little bit of cards all the time throughout the road trip,” he said. “So our bond got completely stronger. It’s kind of crazy how it happened at the end of the year versus beginning.”
Those late-season wins came with half the lineup out because of injuries. James, Hart, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Tyson Chandler all had their seasons shut down prematurely because of health. To that end, the Lakers parted ways with athletic trainer Marco Nuñez on Wednesday after the roster tallied more than 200 games missed because of injury all told during the ill-fated 2018-19 season. Chandler said injuries took their toll as much as the Davis talks did.
“It was injuries and then the trade rumors,” he said. “I wouldn’t be honest if I was sitting up here not saying the same, it was one of the huge factors in the season. The injuries were tough for us because we were already a young unit. … Having those injuries and not being able to get used to one another I think really affected us.”
Still, other players said all the trappings that came with L.A. this season — even the unfortunate things out of their control — are worth it.
“I would say it’s a lot of distractions, obviously. We’re in the media every day, whether it’s good or bad. But like I said, I think as long as you’re close with teammates, and the locker room’s good, that’s all that matters,” Ball said. “The outside noise doesn’t really mean too much. If whoever wants to come or is coming, I would say that. Stay close knit, no matter what, through it all. Living out here and growing up here, I know how it is playing in L.A. so I wasn’t surprised when I came in. But the fans love you as long as you’re doing your job.”
JaVale McGee, an impending free agent who declared his desire to re-up with the franchise to return for the 2019-20 season, said he could get used to life as a Laker.
“There’s opportunities on and off the court here,” McGee said. “We had the most TV games out of anybody, and they were coming from a losing season, or we were coming from a losing season. That’s just showing you how much spotlight and how much opportunity there is being with the Lakers if you’re winning or losing. It’s just opportunity out of anything. Anyone who wouldn’t want to take advantage of that opportunity just because their fear of the spotlight is childish.”