LOS ANGELES — It’s only February, but the Lakers needed a good spring cleaning.
Not on the court, mind you: In the games themselves, the ninth-place Lakers (27-32) are still trending in the wrong direction after losing another nail-biter to the Clippers on Friday night.
But a nearly 12-minute postgame session saw LeBron James doing some of the heaviest lifting of the season, trying to spin the mess his words made over All-Star weekend back into a more manageable situation.
James, 37, was fervently in damage control mode in his first media appearance since the All-Star Game, when asked about his comments on other NBA general managers, his alluding to a potential open door for a third act in Cleveland, and his sudden interest in talking about moving markets to play with his son. His explanation was that all of his comments were misconstrued, and actually, everything is fine between him and Lakers management.
When asked how confident he was in the Lakers’ ability to surround him with a championship roster, James didn’t hesitate: “Very confident. They’ve done it. They’ve shown me that.
“Ever since I got here, the front office of Jeanie (Buss), Linda (Rambis), Kurt (Rambis), everybody has welcomed me with open arms and has given me an opportunity to play for a historical franchise and welcomed my family in,” he added. “And I just try to give back my part of the game and inspire kids and inspire people that want to follow the Lakers and put them back at a level that they’re accustomed to being. And that’s always been my focus.”
Southern California News Group and other outlets have reported tension between James and the Lakers’ front office for weeks over the direction of the roster at the trade deadline. Nothing changes history: Sources have told SCNG that James desired a shake-up, and when the Lakers didn’t make one, there was frustration with the inaction at the deadline. ESPN notably reported that sources close to James disputed GM Rob Pelinka’s assertion that he and Davis “were in alignment” on that decision.
But it seems James and the Lakers have determined the drama has gone far enough: They set about smoothing things over after getting back from the break.
ESPN and The Athletic reported a Tuesday meeting between Lakers management and Rich Paul, James’ agent and CEO of Klutch Sports. Buss and Pelinka met with Paul to clear the air. The Athletic’s Sam Amick wrote: “Paul strongly refuted the notion that there is any sort of divide between James and the Lakers, or that these were all signs of a grand exit plan that’s yet to come.”
As the game started on Friday night, Paul was present in his usual courtside seat, and he made an early visit to Buss’ section. He exchanged an embrace and some pleasantries with Linda Rambis, Buss’ best friend and one of her trusted advisors. If anyone was looking for a message there, it would have been: Everything’s all good.
If there was no divide between the Lakers and the four-time league MVP, it seems like a meeting between James’ agent and Lakers’ brass wouldn’t be necessary. But James swept over that detail, saying he wasn’t aware of that summit when he was enjoying his break on a distant shoreline.
He defended Paul, saying that issues between Klutch and the Lakers have been misrepresented because of professional envy.
“I think it’s important that it always stays transparent between us and we don’t really care about the outside noise,” James said. “I think a lot of people are, to be honest, just jealous of the relationship that Rich has with the front office and with this team and with the relationship that I have, that I’ve grown over the last four years. I mean, that’s what I think it boils down to.”
Still, James denied that he carries any bottom-line power when it comes to making roster decisions: “(The Lakers) ask for my opinion, and I voice my opinion and what I believe. But I don’t press any buttons. That’s what our front office is for and that’s what our leadership group is for.”
On other fronts, James went on the offensive, accusing media figures of twisting his words “to different places they shouldn’t go.” He passed off his comments on Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti and Cleveland GM Koby Altman as sincere praise, acting confused as to why they were perceived as passive-aggressive shots at Pelinka.
Regarding an interview he gave to The Athletic’s Jason Lloyd saying “the door’s not closed” on a return to Cleveland – including when he said he wouldn’t return for “anything below the top” of the salary scale – James characterized it as a harmless conversation about taking a one-day deal to retire as a Cavalier which he said was “possible.”
James even drew a parallel between Pelinka and one of the executives he spotlighted. When he retweeted Rams GM Les Snead, who wore a shirt reading “(expletive) them picks,” James explained: “I loved his (expletive) T-shirt. I thought it was dope. And I believe the same way. I don’t care about picks; I care about winning championships. Well, how is that directed at Rob and the Lakers’ franchise? Rob has done the same thing. He went and got (Davis).”
James was most definitive about his comments that he wants to play with his oldest son, 17-year-old Bronny James. He told The Athletic last weekend: “Wherever Bronny is at, that’s where I’ll be. I would do whatever it takes to play with my son for one year. It’s not about the money at that point.”
James walked back the idea to a degree, implying that he hoped Bronny would wind up with the Lakers.
“I see myself being with the purple and gold as long as I can play,” he said. “But I also have a goal that if it’s possible – I don’t even know if it’s possible – that if I can play with my son, I would love to do that. Is that, like, something that any man shouldn’t want that in life? That’s like the coolest thing that could possibly happen. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to be with this franchise.”
Even if James is reshaping the context of his comments, it’s most notable that he’s marshaling his forces behind the Lakers themselves. After letting the franchise ripple in the wind for the past week, he presented solidarity and alignment as he returned to work. That’s a positive development for James and the Lakers – working together is the only potential way they have to turn things around.
James acknowledged that losing is at the root of all of his frustrations, including Friday night. He echoed something that Pelinka said after the deadline: The 18 games the Lakers have gotten out of their “Big Three” of him, Davis and Russell Westbrook has been too small to judge.
“That’s the biggest disappointment so far,” he said. “Because we all wanted to see this work, we just haven’t been on the floor.”
James couldn’t recall the exact number of games the Big Three has played together. When a reporter told him, he frowned.
“That’s pretty bad when you’ve only got 20-something games left,” he said.
— Kyle Goon