The Los Angeles Lakers are turning their attention to what’s been their goal all season long — getting back to the playoffs.
“My hope is our story is a little bit, maybe, like (the New England Patriots) where we’re on the outside but we find a way to get in the playoffs with the skillsets we’ve added,” Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said. “And then much like (Tom) Brady did, we let one of the all-time greats — LeBron — take the helm for this team and make some noise.”
Pelinka then pointed to the effect of newcomers Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala, each acquired in separate trades before the noon PST deadline on Thursday.
“I almost look at Bullock and Muscala, my hope is, much like (Julian) Edelman was, it’s just one player, but that can have such a big impact on overall chemistry and I hope those two guys can come in and have that impact,” Pelinka said.
The first step for the Lakers will be moving past the unease of the last week. That will be critical for a group that is now 28-27, in 10th place in the Western Conference and still well within striking distance of the playoffs, only 11/2 games behind the eighth-place Los Angeles Clippers (30-26).
“If I’m healthy, and we’re a collective group, I think we can make a push (in the playoffs),” James said. “And that’s what it’s all about. If I continue to get into form and we continue to get into form as a collective group, then we’ll be strong.”
Magic Johnson, the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, plans on meeting with players this weekend in Philadelphia to help reach that goal, according to two people with knowledge of the situation not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
He will talk to the Lakers about the Anthony Davis trade situation that nearly pulled them under, emphasizing that the NBA is a business and that this franchise is about winning championships and doing all it can to accomplish that goal. And he wants to provide an open forum for players so they can move forward together.
He’ll also tell them how impressed he was seeing them defeat the rival Boston Celtics on Thursday night and encourage them to take that same fight to Philadelphia when they play the 76ers today in another nationally televised game, two people said.
Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo and Ivica Zubac were all involved in the Lakers’ trade talks with the New Orleans Pelicans for Davis.
But the NBA trade deadline passed and, with the exception of Zubac, all remained with the Lakers. Zubac and Michael Beasley were traded to the Clippers for Muscala in the final hour before the deadline.
Winning helped the Lakers begin to overcome their ill feelings from the past week.
Asked if he thought the week eroded the players’ trust in the front office, Pelinka said he couldn’t directly speak about players.
“Magic, Luke and I have really, really close, open relationships with all our players,” Pelinka said of Johnson and coach Luke Walton. “I think that that’s something I think we really take great pride in. I think all players understand there’s a business component to playing in the NBA, but I think maybe because Magic was a player, I played, I was also a player representative, you kind of have a deeper understanding and appreciation for some of the other things players go through.”
While Pelinka said he wasn’t aware of Johnson’s plan to meet with the team, he acknowledged that Johnson would be attending the Lakers’ game in Philadelphia, after first flying east for a reunion of the 1979 Michigan State team that won a national championship.
Muscala was one of two capable shooters the Lakers added at the trade deadline. The also traded Svi Mykhailiuk to the Detroit Pistons for Bullock, who is expected to be in uniform against the 76ers.
As a rookie, Mykhailiuk only spent a few months with the Lakers. But Zubac left more of an imprint. The second-round draft pick in 2016 was in his third season. He had worked his way into the Lakers’ starting lineup, after a season that began with an illness.
Pelinka said the decision to trade Zubac was difficult, but done in service of making the playoffs.
“When we evaluated our fives with Ivica, (Tyson) Chandler and (JaVale) McGee, we felt like there were some similarities we just wanted to add a spread five that could kind of open up the court,” Pelinka said of acquiring Muscala.
When the Lakers signed James they did not surround him with shooters and said their plan was to fill the roster with playmakers for a fast-paced offense. They wanted to try something different from what James’ teams had looked like in the past. With injuries to playmakers such as Rondo and Ball, Pelinka said the offense slowed and increased the need for shooters.
The trade for Muscala opened a roster spot for the Lakers and Pelinka said he planned to speak with Walton on Friday afternoon, after already speaking to Johnson in the morning, about the best way to use that spot.
They’ll consider free agent Carmelo Anthony for that opening, and they also have interest in signing forward Markieff Morris if he clears waivers and is healthy, according to one person.
Morris was acquired by the Pelicans on Thursday in a trade with the Washington Wizards, but he was waived later that day.
The power forward hasn’t played in a game since Dec. 26. In January, he was diagnosed with transient cervical neuropraxia, a spinal injury. His timeline for recovery was six weeks.
Although the passing of the trade deadline gave the Lakers some certainty, there remain questions as they try to make a playoff run.