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Opinion: LeBron & Co. left with chemistry problem as NBA trade deadline passes

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 2/7/2019 Martin Rogers
© AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

LOS ANGELES -- The tug-of-war between the Lakers and Pelicans over Anthony Davis is on hiatus until summer and a new reality has enveloped Los Angeles.

The Lakers now are stuck with what they’ve got – players who feel like little more than trade bait for the one player the franchise truly craved. If this was a chemistry experiment, the beaker would have boiled over.

There is a young group of guys trudging their way through a long East Coast road swing who haven’t been hearing the same NBA trade noise as the rest of us this past week. They are the promising yet inexperienced Lakers core.

The message that they’ve each heard is this: “Hey (insert player name), LeBron James thinks you are, at best, 20 percent as valuable as Anthony Davis. You remember him, that’s the guy LeBron really wants to play with. Did I say 20 percent? Make that 10 percent, once you factor in draft picks and salary dumps and all that fun stuff.”

It is an implied message, but that doesn’t diminish the power of its effect on the likes of Lonzo Ball, whom James has spoken about in glowing terms but still was one of the first names on the offer list to New Orleans. Or on Brandon Ingram, who heard “LeBron’s going to trade you” chants in Indianapolis on Tuesday night as he prepared to take free throws against the Pacers. Or on Kyle Kuzma, who might have figured he had done enough to be considered a major part of the Lakers’ plans. Or hard-working Josh Hart. Or in-form breakout center Ivica Zubac.

“I know it has to be tough,” James admitted this week. “Especially on our young guys. They’ve never been a part of that and it is happening every single day.”

When it came down to it, when the Lakers decided to get serious about trying to win a title instead of fudging their way through a transitional season, all of those players became disposable assets.

At 27-27 and 10th in the Western Conference, the Lakers have a problem much bigger than the likelihood that there will be no run to the playoffs this season. The looming issue spinning out of the failure to get Davis is that of diminished locker room synergy, for now at least. The veterans aren’t happy, with Michael Beasley (now bound for the Los Angeles Clippers) and JaVale McGee reportedly squabbling loudly with head coach Luke Walton last week. The youngsters definitely aren’t happy, their egos bruised by being sucked up in the whirlwind of the NBA business cycle.

Such things happen in pro basketball, but for all the players dangled in front of the Pelicans, this is their first time. It is more complex than being unwanted. Not only were they given an indication of their relative value to the Lakers, but New Orleans, by rejecting the deal, said that all five of them combined weren’t of equal value to one All-Star center.

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That’s tough to cope with, and making things thornier is the knowledge that the hand of James wields extraordinary influence in the organization. Yes, it was Magic Johnson making the calls to the Pelicans and Rob Pelinka who is the general manager, but it is absurd to think that any such deal was touted without James being in favor of it.

Now, he has to play with the same group of players, minus Zubac, another part of the trade to the Clippers, with Mike Muscala arriving in return.

Maybe it was a coincidence of timing that James briefly ended up stuck at the end of the Lakers bench Tuesday with three empty seats between him and the next person, but it painted a poignant picture.

Why does it matter? Maybe it doesn’t. The Lakers absolutely weren’t going to contend for a title this year without Davis and almost certainly not even if he had made the move and found a virtually stripped locker room when he arrived.

A lifeless end to the season by a dispirited group of players plus James on his way back from injury might not torpedo the future, but whatever momentum L.A. had in the early part of this season now is gone. It doesn’t quite feel like the same organization that suffered through five seasons with an average win tally under 26, but there’s that nasty NBA disease circulating – uncertainty.

Everything now turns to the summer, and the dilemma of whether to go all out for Davis again and risk being slow-roll squeezed by the Pelicans, or to formulate a Plan B that involves wooing another superstar(s).

The deadline has passed – but the ramifications linger in Los Angeles.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Martin Rogers on Twitter @RogersJourno

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: LeBron & Co. left with chemistry problem as NBA trade deadline passes

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