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Anthony Davis trade talks, Magic Johnson lecture to players reportedly ‘sapped morale’ of Lakers

As we probably should have suspected, the actions of LeBron James and Magic Johnson before and after the Lakers were pursuing Anthony Davis didn’t do wonders for locker room chemistry.

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NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Los Angeles Lakers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Despite it being pretty clear for a while that the Anthony Davis trade talks and ensuing Lakers rumors about which players might be getting shipped out for him — all of them — had a negative effect on the locker room, and that Magic Johnson saying that no one should treat the Lakers’ players “like babies” certainly didn’t seem to help, those assumptions were mostly based off of results, and the eye test of how bad the Lakers looked on the court afterwards.

In other words, we had never really gotten sourced and reported confirmation that those assumptions were true. At least not until Tuesday morning, when Zach Lowe of ESPN released a sprawling piece on LeBron James’ legacy and place in the GOAT conversation, and tucked this little nugget about where the Lakers’ season went off the rails within:

Parceling out blame is tricky. LeBron is so powerful that separating him from any part of an organization is impossible. The midseason gambit to acquire Anthony Davis almost certainly doesn’t happen, or become so public, without at least LeBron’s tacit go-ahead. Those talks sapped morale, sources say. Ditto for Magic Johnson’s post-deadline lecture about treating the Lakers’ young players “like babies.” LeBron’s eye-rolling on-court scoldings, a staple whenever he feels things sinking, did nothing to reverse any of that. Unbecoming, but not new.

None of that is exactly surprising, but it is the first explicit confirmation that those reads of the situation are accurate. Their veracity is also borne out in the Lakers’ results prior to and after those events, although there is other context there like James’ injury — and the injuries of his teammates — to factor in.

Prior to Davis publicly demanding a trade on Jan. 28, the Lakers were still 15th in the league in net rating, despite having been missing LeBron for around a month at that point. They still had a top-10 defense in the league (they ranked 7th at that point), and while their offense was only 21st, it hadn’t completely cratered yet.

After those trade rumors started to trickle out in the wake of Davis’ demand — and the fact that Lowe’s reporting and James’ own actions of publicly and unprompted saying on the record that it would be “amazing” to play with Davis clearly show he was just fine with shipping all his teammates out for the Pelicans star — the Lakers’ locker room morale, and their play on the court, fell off a cliff.

Since Jan. 28, the Lakers’ offense has ranked 26th in the league — not a hug drop-off from 21st — but their defense, aka the end of the floor more predicated on selling out and playing with effort, has cratered to 30th in the NBA over that time frame, as has their net rating. That’s fairly damning.

Think about it this way: The Lakers have been getting outscored by an NBA-high 9.4 points per 100 possessions over the last 16 games, and no matter how important you think Lonzo Ball is to their defense — Ball got injured on Jan. 19 — one point guard should not be the difference between a top-10 defense and literally the worst one in the league. The Lakers’ schedule has also gotten harder since then, but at this point that’s just looking for excuses to not admit that this team, on some level, gave up.

And to be clear, this is not me saying the young core gave up. They — for the most part — continue to play hard, with Brandon Ingram showcasing the best basketball of his career amidst the trade rumors, Kyle Kuzma continuing to produce (at least offensively) and Josh Hart at least still trying, albeit less effectively given how banged up he was. This was mostly on the veterans, veterans who did not likely expect to be in trade rumors and bought out defensively once it was clear they were not going to be Lakers long-term, or once it was clear Davis wouldn’t be joining them soon, respectively:

Anyway, no matter whether you think James was correct or not in trying so hard to get Davis, or whether it was the logical choice, it didn’t work, and to shield him completely from blame for his leadership — or lack thereof — in the fallout since would be somewhat intellectually dishonest.

Also not escaping without some egg on his face: Magic Johnson. Since the infamous pep talk Lowe references on Feb. 10, in which Johnson told the media that they needed to “quit making this about thinking these guys are babies” and gave a similar talk to the Lakers in the locker room before the team was shellacked by the Philadelphia 76ers on national television, the Lakers’ defense has dropped from 13th in the league at that point to 28th since.

If the Lakers’ season was on life support before then, it would seem Johnson’s tone-deaf attempt to get the locker room to rally around... not being babies?... did not help things. Apparently the roster didn’t want to hear that from the guy who just tried incredibly publicly and ineptly to trade all of them just a few days before, and only stopped because he didn’t want to give up more draft picks. Who could have guessed that wouldn’t have gone over well?

Other than literally everyone except Johnson, I guess.

Look, as written above, there is additional context to all of this, from the Lakers’ increasingly difficult schedule to Lonzo Ball’s absence, but at some point all of it is just grasping for reasons to not blame James and Johnson for the effects of their actions. Which is fine! But if you’re going to do that, just admit it’s what you’re doing. Maybe they aren’t fully to blame, but they deserve some.

And hey, maybe Davis was the Lakers’ best shot at a title during the James era, the highest upside play, and maybe they could fix all of this over the summer. Still, we can only judge things right now based on the information we have currently, and right now it looks like their failed power play flamed out pretty badly. We’ll see if James and Johnson can shift that narrative this summer and change how they’re perceived, but until then, these have been the consequences of their actions, and Lowe’s report reinforces that there isn’t wiggle-room to say that “maybe all of that speculation was just speculation” or call it “fake news.”

No, it seems like all of this really affected the locker room, and we have to be honest about it.

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