August 12, 2022

LAS VEGAS — Since joining the Lakers in the summer of 2018, LeBron James’ arrival at the Thomas & Mack Center in the Las Vegas Summer League has been one of the biggest shows of the weekend.

In 2018, he showed up on the court in a white t-shirt, black hat, black sunglasses and, most notably, $500 Lakers shorts in shiny gold.

In 2019, he sat on the court with Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma, laughing and joking, weeks after Davis was traded to Los Angeles.

In 2021 – there was no 2020 summer league because of COVID-19 – James arrived and sat down with Russell Westbrook, the Lakers’ latest acquisition, signaling solidarity and enthusiasm for the return of Westbrook.

Moments before the Lakers clinch against the Phoenix Suns on Friday, James continued his summer league tradition, sitting courtside along the baseline perpendicular to the Suns’ bench.

All eyes in the arena were on him. Players, former players, coaches, agents and executives – including Jerry Stackhouse, James Jones, Gary Payton II and Baron Davis – made their way to James and joined the scene, which included more than a dozen photographers documenting it from all walks of life. possible angle.

On the opposite end of the floor, almost directly diagonally, Westbrook sat beside the Lakers bench, even stepping into the group at one point to offer advice.

The group that headed towards James included several current teammates: Wenyen Gabriel, Thomas Bryant, Juan Toscano-Anderson and Talen Horton-Tucker, who sat next to James during the third quarter.

The organization’s top brass also stopped by, from senior basketball adviser Kurt Rambis to head coach Darvin Ham to vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka.

Westbrook never came close, however, leaving just as the halftime bell rang. James stayed until the end of the third quarter.

The two never recognized each other.

Maybe that means something. Maybe that means everything. Maybe that doesn’t mean anything.

But with all eyes in the arena — and on TV and social media — on James and Westbrook, it was interesting, if not telling, that they never interacted publicly. Especially considering their summer league bromance less than 12 months ago.

Westbrook, of course, has been the subject of trade rumors dating back to last season. The chatter has picked up in recent weeks, with the Brooklyn Nets implosing and Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving expressing their preferences to play elsewhere.

Irving’s first choice is the Lakers. James’ preference is to trade for Irving. The easiest way for the Lakers to get a deal with Brooklyn — really, one of the only ways — is to send in Westbrook.

Intrinsically, James’ desire to acquire Irving is an indication that he is ready to trade Westbrook. That should come as no surprise, given Westbrook’s 2021-22 season and his subtle criticism of James and Davis during his exit interview in April.

Shortly after Westbrook’s departure, Ham spoke to a small group of media members in the bowels of the arena, addressing the impact of the rampant trade speculation surrounding the roster.

“I mean, you’re all human,” Ham said. “You see or hear your name anywhere, you’ll get curious. But at the end of the day, like I told these guys, we love everyone on our roster. And until you’re not on our roster, you’re ours, and we’ll try to improve with the group we have. This is just the end result.

Ham added: “I don’t know a player who came through this league in my 26 years who hasn’t had his name in a trade rumor once or twice. It’s like that. This is the nature of our business beast. And so, again, the guys that we have on our roster that I’m very grateful for, that I’m proud of, and we want to maximize whatever they can do to help us achieve that ultimate goal.

This offseason, the Lakers have redone half of their roster, adding Lonnie Walker IV, Troy Brown Jr., Damian Jones, Toscano-Anderson and Bryant in free agency, and recruiting Max Christie, who officially signed with the team on Friday, with the No. 35 pick in the second round. The goal was to get younger and more athletic around James, Davis and Westbrook (or his replacements).

Ham, who had mentioned several times during his introductory press conference that he would be working with Pelinka, the rest of the front office and Governor Jeanie Buss on building next season’s roster, was pleased with the results. of free agency.

“I think we got younger, I think we got faster, I think we got hungrier,” Ham said. “Between Juan Toscano-Anderson, Lonnie Walker, Troy Brown Jr., Damian Jones, Thomas Bryant, and even some of our young kids — Cole (Swider), Scotty (Pippen Jr.), Max — the guys are hungry and they’re raising their eyes to our big three and they really want to do everything in their power and energy level to come and help them. Just compete, compete, compete, compete. That’s the whole story.”

Ham was quick to add a caveat that the Lakers “still have a long way to go” to build their roster and may look to improve their roster in other ways.

“Every team – not just us, all the other 29 teams as well as us – is always looking for ways to improve their roster, whether it’s draft, free agency, G League, whatever,” Ham said. “We’re definitely trying to access all of those resources and exhaust all of those resources possible to put together the best possible squad for 2022-23.”

Technically, the Lakers can only make changes through free will and trade. There aren’t many hard-hitting free agents left, and the Lakers only have minimal veteran contracts to offer, leaving trades as their best avenue for improvement.

The Lakers have 13 players, two short of the league maximum of 15. Ham said the team isn’t looking for a particular position but clarified that 3-point shooting is a priority. Brown is the only addition to meet or exceed the league 3-point average last season (he was right at the league average of 35.4%).

“You can never have too many shooters, first and foremost,” Ham said. “But we’re just looking for the best possible basketball players we can put a Laker jersey on.”

The Lakers already have two of the best players in the league in James and Davis. Westbrook was supposed to be the third star to put them back in contention, but he passed away last season.

It’s become clear the Lakers can find better options for their roster than Westbrook as long as they’re willing to sacrifice a long-term capital project. If they don’t trade for Irving, the Lakers can still make a deal with another team, likely the Indiana Pacers.

Publicly, however, the party line is that Westbrook is part of their future, and they built their roster with him in mind – something Westbrook himself surely doesn’t believe.

When asked if he had been able to connect with James, Davis and Westbrook at the same time and work on building better camaraderie with the trio for next season, Ham dismissed their lack of interaction as they were simply busy during the peak of summer.

“It’s a funny time of year,” Ham said. “I mean, it’s good. AD has a newborn on the way. These guys have busy schedules. They are busy guys. Russ is doing his fashion thing. LeBron has a million things going on. Absolutely, we’ve been in the communication phase, but it’s hard when guys have business outside of basketball.

“But they do a good job of staying connected whenever I need them. Whenever I need the three of them thinking, they’re right there with me.

How much longer Westbrook is there with the group will be determined in the days, weeks and possibly months to come, depending on how long Durant and Irving’s respective situations last. Westbrook is still unlikely to be a Laker past the 2023 trade deadline.

But the tension has certainly increased, to some extent. The cold James-Westbrook dynamic in Friday’s game is a consequence of the delicate situation the Lakers find themselves in as they wait for Westbrook’s future to be resolved.

(Photo: Kyle Terada/USA Today)