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Out With the Old, in With the... Old: The Lakers’ vibe shift has them back at the beginning

Swapping one Russell for another has already made a world of difference for the Lakers, but is it all too little, too late?

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Los Angeles Lakers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES — One game into the full-strength, new-look Lakers’ tenure — a 20-point win over a team they needed to beat for potential standings purposes — the vibe around the team was one of being unburdened.

For the past year and a half, the Staples Center’s underbelly was a tense place on the best of nights. Even after their best wins — to be fair a fleeting circumstance — it always felt as though the next shoe had yet to drop, disrupting whatever morsel of momentum the team had recently generated.

On Wednesday, folks in and around the Lakers smiled a little bit bigger and laughed a little bit louder, seemingly shedding the fear of whatever else might be around the corner. Even the uber-focused LeBron let a bit looser than usual in his postgame presser, riffing about the strength of his marriage as the Lakers’ Associate Director of Media Relations wiped excess Neosporin from around the scratch on his cheek he suffered during the game.

Despite exiting the contest with his lowly Lakers coming out comfortably victorious and battle wounds to show for it, LeBron had likely his lightest workload in literally over a year. Not since the Lakers blew out the Blazers on New Years Eve, 2021 has the King come out of a game with fewer than 30 minutes of court time.

Although LeBron finished with a sturdy 21 points, he fell well short of his season average of exactly 30 points per game and was matched or bested in scoring by both Anthony Davis and D’Angelo Russell.

In his first game with the newest, oldest Laker (since his original stint in LA predates the presence of any other current Laker), LeBron and Russell flashed signs of synergy scarcely shown between James and the guard he replaced of, ironically, the same name. D’Lo found both James and Davis for alley-oop dunks, highlighting his team-high seven assists to just one turnover. Russell scored efficiently too, making three of his five threes and eight of his also team-leading 10 free throws. In his play, the new Russell clearly showed that he can be what the old Russell never was, a player who can help support and enhance LeBron and AD’s superpowers by way of his low-usage, efficient scoring and playmaking.

Despite the presently chipper disposition of the team, it’s not yet clear if this “pre-agency” is more than an “incremental” move, too little and too late to save this season. The Lakers are undoubtedly better off now than they were at the start of the month, but they remain two games out of the final play-in spot and 3.5 games away from a guaranteed first-round entrance.

Unanswerable questions may ultimately define the Lakers’ season if they fail to go on an extended run with this new group. Would they be in better shape if they had made a splashier move this offseason? Could they have done so without burning through the entirety of their remaining draft capital? Would it even have been worth it? Or should they simply have purged the toxic presence in the locker room before the start of the season, a move they reportedly considered making if they weren’t able to do so in advance of the trade deadline?

Although the Lakers were able to get rid of the franchise’s most glaring issue on and off the court, it’s not like they swapped him out for the patron saint of team cohesion. Coming from a disintegrating dynamic in Minnesota, D’Lo left his first team on uneasy terms after an immature and unfortunate breach of trust by exposing a teammate’s own dishonesty, and was described to me by a pair of senior reporters who covered the team during his first stint in LA as “a pill.”

Uncertainty abounds, but for now, the fit, holistically, is a better one, especially considering the reports of mutual interest in agreeing on an extension this summer. The vibes are good, and if the Lakers are who they think they are, things are about to get a whole lot better.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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