For all the talk of LeBron James being the real GM (LeGM?) of the Los Angeles Lakers, James prefers to wield his influence subtly, and mostly behind closed doors in ways that allow him to keep his hands clean publicly. That can be seen in how he only talks about his role in scouting, recruiting and signing teammates when they’re playing well, or how he constantly directs reporters to talk to general manager Rob Pelinka when asked about the NBA trade deadline, or potential future moves.
The most recent instance of the latter habit came on Monday, when James was directly asked if he thinks the Lakers should be active before the deadline on Thursday, Feb. 10 at 12 p.m. PT. As he always does when there are rumors about teammates around this time of year, James declined to say much of anything specific.
“I always feel like, listen, I don’t really like to play fantasy basketball, so this is the group that we have going into the deadline, and we’ll be ready to take on all challenges that the season is giving us,” James said, not exactly saying that he was happy with the group he has, but also (understandably) not publicly demanding that co-workers he has to talk to every day be exiled to another city.
“I’ve said this every year, if there’s an opportunity for you to get better, then you explore those options. I’ve been like that my whole career. I’ve said it over and over. If you have an opportunity to get better, no one turns that down,” James continued before giving a cross-sport, but Los Angeles- based example.
“As great as the Rams was, they had an opportunity to get an elite guy like Odell (Beckham Jr.) and they went and got him. So if you have an opportunity to get better, you get better,” James said. “If not, you rock and roll with what you’ve got.”
Hilariously, the Super Bowl-bound Rams actually added Beckham as a buyout free agent, but James’ overall point is well taken. But pressed more specifically by a follow-up that started “have you and Rob had a dialogue about...” James cut the question off.
“You’ve got to ask Rob that question,” James said, directing further inquiries to a man who sits above him on the org chart only on paper.
Interestingly, though, James wasn’t done talking about trade rumors, although he ended up being the one to bring them up. James was asked about trying to establish consistency for the famously routine-based Russell Westbrook, and seemed to imply that he thinks that outside noise may be part of what’s leading Westbrook to — as James and Anthony Davis described it this weekend — get in his own head.
The full exchange is transcribed below for full transparency (emphasis mine), and if you want to watch it for yourself, the conversation starts around the 8:30 mark of this video:
Reporter: With all the instability this season and how much has changed, I think it’s pretty well established that Russ is this guy who really thrives off of routine. And even though he’s played every game for you guys, his role and the teammates around him have changed a lot. Is there anything you guys do internally to kind of create stability, either in the locker room or in some other way for Russ to kind of make him feel grounded?
James: “We’re just honest. I mean listen, we’re all honest with everybody. So at the end of the day, we can’t control the narrative of what’s going on in the media, or what’s going on on social media, or what things are going on. There’s always rumblings and conversations that are going to be had every single trade deadline. It happens every single year. It happens. I think what you read or how much you pay attention to can manifest itself into you believing it or not. Or you just say ‘I’m putting my foot in the ground, I’ve got a job to do, I’m gonna go out and play.’
“For me, as a brother to Russ, at the end of the day I only care about his state of mind and how much he can give to himself. If he commits to himself then it will trickle down to the rest of us. So I don’t really get involved in all the schematics and things off the floor, all I care about is how he is, how his wellbeing is, how his family is doing. The game will translate. You put the work in, the game will translate.
“Guys struggle all the time. Guys feel like they’re not themselves or feel like they can do more, and that’s OK, but at the end of the day as brothers, we’re all in this together. We’re all in this foxhole together. There’s not one guy that’s doing it by himself, there’s not one guy to get the blame over another guy, there’s not one guy to get the praise over another guy. When we lose we all lose, and when we win we all win. It’s literally that simple.”
So, again, as you can see and hear for yourself above, James was not asked about trade rumors in any way, but still touched on both...
a) media narratives
b) trade rumors around this time of year
...all while talking about trying to help Westbrook “feel grounded.”
Now, would it be understandable if all the outside noise — both in the arena, where Westbrook was subject to boos this weekend in his hometown, and in the media, where he has been the subject of trade rumors, albeit mostly ones about how unwanted he is — was getting to Westbrook? Of course. But that’s generally not the image he tries to project, and it’s interesting that James went there relatively unprompted.
Also interesting was James’ use of the phrase “trickle down,” which is the exact same phrasing he used while talking about an unnamed teammate after the team’s win over the Knicks on Saturday.
“It’s all about taking accountability for your own actions,” James said on the ABC broadcast. “If you won’t change, you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror and demand more out of yourself. And that will trickle down to everybody else on the ball club.”
Now, James concluded his remarks on Monday by being supportive of Westbrook, and saying that all that matters is the results for the team. But if it wasn’t clear before, it’s pretty obvious now that his verbal subtweet on national television was about his former All-Star teammate, and he also has now essentially putting the onus on him to either play better, or to continue to focus on the noise that James pretty clearly feels is leading him down a negative path.
So while none of the preceding points were all that direct, James’ message was gotten across nonetheless. Even if he wasn’t going to come out directly and say it, it’s pretty clear he wouldn’t mind if Pelinka made some moves. Just don’t expect him to take credit for them or get behind them publicly.
At least not until when — and if — they work out.