EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — The trade deadline is normally the highest-stress time of year for an NBA team. Take last year’s Los Angeles Lakers, for example. That team unforgettably cratered in a blowout loss against the Indiana Pacers in their final game before the deadline, a game that was most memorable for the symbolic (albeit probably unintended) space between LeBron James and his teammates on the bench.
This year, the team’s chemistry has been much better, and the trade deadline hasn’t even felt like a real point of controversy. That’s both a testament to how good this roster has been, and because of how massively transaction season hs been overshadowed by the way the Lakers have been forced to band together and grieve following the death of Kobe Bryant.
At practice on Monday, things seemed as normal as they’ve felt since Bryant’s untimely passing. Music blared over the speakers as players worked on individual skills. James worked on his mid-range game out of post-ups. Alex Caruso shot threes.
But at halfcourt on one of the team’s practice courts, it was hard to not notice Lakers Vice President, Basketball Operations Rob Pelinka and head coach Frank Vogel having a discussion while they watched the proceedings. What they were discussing at that moment is anyone’s guess, but it’s safe to say that with the trade deadline (Feb. 6 at 12:00 p.m. PST) less than 72 hours away, at some point this week those two will be discussing theoretical deals the Lakers could make, and whether or not they should pull the trigger on a move that would shake up this team’s camaraderie, but also potentially increase their baseline level of talent.
Last year, rumors about such discussions destroyed team chemistry. This year, with less of the roster involved in trade rumors and more veteran players who have been through a few deadlines, that may be less of a concern.
“It’s just part of this time of the year, it just comes with the territory of being an NBA player, NBA coach and front office and we’re going to do our job,” Vogel said after practice, admitting that he hasn’t felt he needed to address the looming deadline with the roster.
“Like every other team in the NBA, if there are ways to improve our team we’re gonna try to do it. If not, I know our team, we feel really good about who we have in uniform on this roster.”
Making trades is never easy, but from a human perspective would seem to be especially difficult for an organization that prides itself on being a family while the whole roster is going through a genuine loss together. And how can Pelinka, who has described Bryant as his best friend, just go back to working the phones trying to find deals so soon after a tragedy? None of this is as easy as it would be in any normal year.
“I can’t speak on what Rob is thinking about right now and what our front office is thinking about,” James said after practice when asked about how Pelinka could continue to go about the business of the NBA so soon after losing Bryant, and how the team could support him in doing so.
“As a leader of the team, I’m thinking about how we can continue to get better as a team and lean on each other throughout this difficult time for us,” James said. “I have no idea on the question that you asked, but I know we can all continue to support each other no matter what’s going on.”
Vogel said that the team all collectively going through such a loss together would be a consideration at the deadline, but not the sole one.
“I think it is part of the equation. But I don’t think it’s going to be something that prevents us from doing something if we feel like there is an opportunity to improve our roster,” Vogel said.
That mirrors what has leaked so far, as the Lakers appear to be a team willing to discuss deals, but not especially in a rush to do one. Given everything they’ve gone through — and the fact that they do have the best record in the Western Conference at 37-11 — that seems like about the right tone to strike.
Last year, trade rumors consumed this team. This year, whatever discussions have happened have been much less public. It’s hard to know what the Lakers will do. Even they don’t seem to really know.
“We’ll see how the next few days play out,” Vogel said.
Lakers fans and the rest of the NBA will be watching, and whatever choices this team makes, in a year where they appear to have a genuine shot to win the title, they’ll have to tread carefully, and decide if their chemistry and camaraderie is valuable enough for a roster with clear flaws to risk standing pat.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. You can keep track of every trade rumor involving the Lakers here, and for more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.