Only one game in, the Lakers are already off-script

Editor’s note: This is the Wednesday Oct. 19 edition of the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

SAN FRANCISCO — In case you were wondering, now we know what LeBron James is really thinking.

Since signing the contract extension tying him to the Lakers through as far as 2025, the 37-year-old has played his cards close to the vest. But on Tuesday night, after only one loss that actually counts, James went way, way off script when asked about the team’s subpar 3-point shooting against the Golden State Warriors.

“I don’t know. I think we’re getting great looks, and I think there also could be teams giving us great looks,” he said. “I mean, to be completely honest, we’re not a team that’s constructed of great shooting. And that’s just what the truth of the matter is. It’s not like we’re sitting here with a lot of lasers on our team.”

If you were wondering if that was just an off-the-cuff comment: It wasn’t. Because on a follow-up question, he doubled down.

“I mean, let’s keep it a buck: It would be like a football team – if you had a football analogy – and you had a bunch of guys that were underneath route runners and wondering why the quarterback is not throwing 20-plus (yard) passes down the field,” he said. “That’s how the team is constructed.”

Using the word “constructed” is especially damning to one man: General Manager Rob Pelinka. And again, it’s just one game into the season.

How are we already here? How is the Lakers’ superstar, who extended his deal over the summer, already taking shots at the GM who received his own extension during the offseason?

To be clear, Pelinka wasn’t the only one taking heat. James also targeted himself after a 3-for-10 deep shooting night and five turnovers against the Warriors. But given how guarded he has been about criticizing the Lakers’ front office since he stirred another controversy back in February, it stuck out as a particularly cavalier comment – and there’s not a lot that James says when he can’t at least predict the waves it will make.

The candor helps illuminate just how precarious things are in the Lakers organization: As Southern California News Group has reported before, the franchise worked over the summer to find a trade for Russell Westbrook that would send them back useful pieces to help them contend. Unable to find a deal that worked at the price they wanted, they made a calculated gamble: Go forward with Westbrook and try to rehabilitate his trade value.

Coach Darvin Ham has propped up Westbrook with private pep talks and public laudits. The Lakers figured if they could get some good minutes out of Westbrook, maybe a team looking to tank or generate salary cap space for next season would be willing to take him on closer to the trade deadline.

Ham made the somewhat surprising decision to reverse course from the preseason and start Westbrook on Tuesday, getting 19 points and 11 rebounds out of the 33-year-old former league MVP.

“You want to start the game off the right way in terms of the energy and being in attack mode and there is no one better than him,” Ham said. “I mean, it’s what we have and wegot some key guys hurt and it’s game one. Just give him a chance to go out and compete at the highest level.”

Stringing together those kinds of nights might actually help achieve the Lakers’ (and arguably Westbrook’s) goals. But they might have underestimated just how much organizational discipline is required to maintain this poker face. When they lose, key figures get frustrated.

They’re already skating on thin ice with Westbrook, who made one particularly conspicuous comment about how coming off the bench against Sacramento in a preseason game could have “absolutely” contributed to straining his hamstring in the first quarter and leaving the game early.

“Honestly, I didn’t even know what to do pregame,” he said. “Being honest, I was trying to figure out how to stay warm and loose. For me, obviously, the way I play the game, it’s fast-paced, quick, stop-and-go. And I just happened to, when I subbed in, I felt something. … Didn’t know what it was, but I wasn’t going to risk it in a preseason game. But definitely wasn’t something I was used to. Wasn’t warm enough.”

This might be a case of Westbrook being straightforward, but it evoked a comment he made last season when discussing a back injury that kept him out one night before the trade deadline: “I’m not accustomed to sitting down for long stretches and getting up and then, like, moving quickly. It kind of stiffens up a little bit.”

Whether Westbrook intended to be passive-aggressive or not, there are plenty of people searching for meaning in his words and body language – such as when a video clip of him apparently ignoring a huddle went viral, only for another angle later to help clear it up.

One of the loudest voices in basketball is apparently reading a lot into Westbrook’s body language. Charles Barkley said on “Inside the NBA” that both the Lakers and Westbrook need to turn the page.

“I admire him. I respect him. It’s time for the Lakers to move him. They have taken all his joy out of life and basketball. … This guy used to be so exuberant, played with great energy, great emotion.”

Westbrook getting a fresh start in L.A. might simply be wishful thinking if the world is not ready to give it to him.

But there’s more to it than just Westbrook: Opportunity cost. By not trading Westbrook, the Lakers are potentially missing out on shooters who could help them compete.

If you buy that James is ready for another season with Westbrook (and there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical of that), then James’ targeting of the lack of shooting on the roster can be read as another criticism entirely. It’s not that no one knows the situation: Only one free agent (Troy Brown Jr.) the Lakers signed this summer shot better than 35% from 3-point range last season. Even Pat Beverley, who the team acquired via trade, shot 34.3% from deep last season (although his career 37.8% mark is reason to hope he’ll bounce back).

But drawing attention to the deficiency certainly makes a statement about James’ faith in his teammates. He’s talked before about the “great looks” that the Lakers have been getting in the offense – he just doesn’t think the team can hit them.

Even to those who believe he is only stating the obvious, the messaging could not be more clear. James, who has made a career out of competing when surrounded by 3-point shooters, doesn’t believe this roster has great shooting. While he added, “that don’t mean you can’t win,” it’s clearly implied that winning would be easier if the Lakers had shooting – especially in light of their opponent, a team that just won its fourth title in the past seven years behind two of the best shooters of all time.

The Lakers can’t acquire a Steph Curry or Klay Thompson, but they could add a Buddy Hield – one of the players reportedly available in a trade with Indiana that multiple sources told Southern California News Group was very nearly completed. While players like Lonnie Walker IV or Austin Reaves can try to improve their long-range shooting, it makes a lot of sense to add a proven weapon.

This is not commentary on whether a deal for Hield and Myles Turner is the right one for the Lakers to make. But clearly, James believes something critical is lacking. And that has to count for a lot when the Lakers, as Pelinka put it just a few weeks ago, “will do everything we can, (draft) picks included, to make deals to give us a chance to help LeBron get to the end.”

It’s only the beginning. And the doubt James is already expressing after only one game doesn’t bode well for getting to the end.

— Kyle Goon

Editor’s note: Thanks for reading the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

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