Lakers’ Opener Shows Its Stars Are Not Yet Aligned
LOS ANGELES — Anthony Davis still remembers the narrative that trailed him to Los Angeles: “Can he do it under the bright lights?”
Davis had been a stat-stuffing star with the New Orleans Pelicans before forcing his way out, landing with the Lakers in a trade before the start of the 2019-20 season. His first game was against the Clippers, who limited him to a subpar effort in a Lakers loss. Afterward, Davis was beating himself up at his locker. LeBron James, who was sitting next to him, advised him to calm down.
“You’re fine,” James told him. “This is Game 1.”
And then James promptly went back to laughing at whatever he was looking at on his phone.
It was an exchange that stuck with Davis, who wound up playing well enough that season to help deliver the Lakers’ first championship in 10 years. And it was one that Davis fondly remembered on Tuesday night after the Lakers’ season-opening loss to the Golden State Warriors. Something about it felt familiar to him.
A new teammate, Russell Westbrook, had assembled a forgettable performance in his debut for the Lakers — 8 points in 35 frustrating minutes — that prompted James, with Davis’s help this time, to offer another post-Game 1 pep talk.
“We’re with him,” Davis said of Westbrook. “It’s his job to continue to be himself, and we’re going to help him through all the little avenues and these challenges along the way.”
James said he told Westbrook to go home and watch a comedy.
“Do something that can put a smile on his face,” James said. “He’s so hard on himself.”
One game does not mean a whole lot when there are 81 left to play. For the Lakers, their grand experiment — so many aging stars, only one basketball — will resume on Friday against the Phoenix Suns, who eliminated the Lakers from the playoffs last season. In the wake of that first-round exit, the Lakers used the summer to surround James and Davis with a fascinating cast of characters, including Westbrook, the winner of the 2017 Most Valuable Player Award and a triple-double factory in his heyday.
Now 32, Westbrook is as polarizing as ever. Can he produce without having the ball in his hands most of the time? Can he find his jump shot? Will he help the Lakers, or ultimately hurt them?
Again, the Lakers’ 121-114 loss to the Warriors was merely the first game of many. But it was a clunker for Westbrook, who finished with 8 points, five rebounds and four assists while shooting 4 of 13 from the field. In the 35 minutes he was on the court, the Lakers were outscored by 23 points. He also had four turnovers and a technical foul.
His news conference was brief and fairly monosyllabic.
What did it mean to him that James and Davis had given him some encouragement in the locker room? “We talked,” Westbrook said.
What did he make of the ambience at Staples Center? “I would say I wasn’t paying much mind to be honest,” he said.
OK, how about it being his first game for the Lakers, his hometown team? “Nothing different than a normal game day,” he said.
You get the idea. The spotlight will only burn brighter from here — on the Lakers, on Westbrook, and on their decision to trade for him this summer instead of working out a deal with the Sacramento Kings for Buddy Hield, a shooting guard who would seem a better fit to play off the ball with the likes of James and Davis.
“Him more than anybody, it’s going to be an adjustment period,” Coach Frank Vogel said of Westbrook. “He’s coming into our culture, our system. He’s the new guy, and he’s got to find his way.”
Vogel cited the team’s patchwork preseason in explaining away some of Westbrook’s hiccups. Nobody played that many minutes together. Westbrook’s numbers in four games — 35 percent shooting, a team-high 23 turnovers — would have been more alarming if the preseason actually meant anything.
For his part, James said he suspected that Westbrook had succumbed to “first-game jitters” as a player who had watched the Lakers growing up.
“And now you’re putting on a Laker uniform and you’re stepping into Staples Center,” James said. “I can only imagine how many friends and family have contacted him over the last 48 hours.”
The real referendum on Westbrook’s viability will play out over the coming weeks, though there are larger questions about how this Lakers team was assembled. In recent seasons, they have essentially gutted their roster of the young players they had drafted and were working to develop — everyone from Brandon Ingram to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — in favor of acquiring older, splashier players.
Golden State provided a useful counterpoint to the Lakers’ approach on Tuesday by showcasing Jordan Poole, a third-year guard who scored 16 of his 20 points in the second half and helped make up for Stephen Curry’s poor shooting night. Klay Thompson, who is expected to return to the Warriors’ lineup in a couple of months after missing the past two seasons with injuries, watched from the bench.
Worth noting: All three of those players are Golden State draft picks. The Warriors continue to build from within while the Lakers go shopping every summer.
It was not all bad news for the Lakers. James and Davis were as dynamic as ever, combining for 67 points. But they could have used some help.
“I’ve got to figure it out,” Westbrook said.