LeBron James, Russell Westbrook at Lakers’ summer league, but no interaction

LAS VEGAS – Since joining the Lakers in the summer of 2018, LeBron James ’arrival at the Thomas & Mack Center at Las Vegas Summer League has been one of the biggest spectacles of the weekend.

In 2018, he showed up courtside wearing a white tee, black hat, black sunglasses and, most notably, bright-gold $ 500 Lakers shorts.

In 2019, he sat courtside with Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma, laughing and joking, a few weeks after Davis was traded to Los Angeles.

In 2021 – there was no 2020 summer league because of COVID-19 – James arrived and sat with Russell Westbrook, the Lakers ’newest acquisition, signaling solidarity and excitement for Westbrook’s homecoming.

Moments before the Lakers tipped off against the Phoenix Suns on Friday, James continued his summer-league tradition, sitting courtside along the baseline perpendicular to the Suns’ bench.

All eyes in the arena were on him. Players, former players, coaches, agents and executives – most notably Jerry Stackhouse, James Jones, Gary Payton II and Baron Davis – made their way over to dap up James and join the scene, which featured more than a dozen photographers documenting him from every possible angle.

On the opposite end of the floor, nearly directly diagonal, Westbrook sat next to the Lakers’ bench, even entering the huddle at one point to offer guidance.

The group that made its way over to James included several current teammates: Wenyen Gabriel, Thomas Bryant, Juan Toscano-Anderson and Talen Horton-Tucker, who sat next to James through the third quarter.

The organization’s brass also stopped by, from senior basketball adviser Kurt Rambis to head coach Darvin Ham to vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka.

Westbrook never walked over, though, leaving just as the halftime buzzer sounded. James stayed through the end of the third quarter.

The two never acknowledged each other.

Perhaps it means something. Perhaps it means everything. Perhaps it means nothing.

But with all eyes in the arena – and on TV and social media – on James and Westbrook, it was interesting, if not telling, that they never publicly interacted. Especially when considering their bromance at summer league less than 12 months ago.

Westbrook, of course, has been in trade rumors dating back to last season. The chatter has picked up in recent weeks, with the Brooklyn Nets imploding and Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving expressing their preferences to play elsewhere.

Irving’s top choice is the Lakers. James’ preference is to trade for Irving. The easiest way for the Lakers to get a deal done with Brooklyn – really, one of the only ways – is by sending out Westbrook.

Inherently, James’ desire to acquire Irving is an indication he’s willing to trade Westbrook. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering Westbrook’s subpar 2021-22 season and his subtle criticism of James and Davis in his exit interview back in April.

Shortly after Westbrook left, Ham spoke with a small group of media members in the bowels of the arena, addressing the impact of the rampant trade speculation surrounding the roster.

“I mean, you’re all humans,” Ham said. “You see or hear your name anywhere, you’re going to get curious. But at the end of the day, like I told those guys, we love everyone on our roster. And until you’re not on our roster, you’re ours, and we’re going to try to get better with the group that we have. That’s just the bottom line of it. ”

Ham added: “I don’t know a player that’s come through this league in my 26 years that hasn’t had their name part of a trade rumor a time or two. It is what it is. It’s the nature of the beast of our business. And so, again, the guys we have on our roster I’m very thankful for, I’m proud of, and we want to maximize everything they can do to help us get to that ultimate goal. ”

This offseason, the Lakers remade half their roster, adding Lonnie Walker IV, Troy Brown Jr., Damian Jones, Toscano-Anderson and Bryant in free agency, and drafting Max Christie, who officially signed with the team on Friday, with the No. 1 seed. 35 pick in the second round. The goal was to get younger and more athletic around James, Davis and Westbrook (or his replacements).

Ham, who had mentioned multiple times in his introductory press conference that he was going to collaborate with Pelinka, the rest of the front office and governor Jeanie Buss on the construction of next season’s roster, was pleased with the results of free agency.

“I think we’ve gotten younger, I think we’ve gotten faster, I think we’ve gotten hungrier,” Ham said. “Between Juan Toscano-Anderson, Lonnie Walker, Troy Brown Jr., Damian Jones, Thomas Bryant and even some of our young kids – Cole (Swider), Scotty (Pippen Jr.), Max – guys are hungry, and they look up to our big three and they really want to do everything in their power and their energy level to come out and help them. Just compete, compete, compete, compete. That’s what it’s all about. ”

Ham quickly added a caveat that the Lakers “still have a long way to go” with building their roster and can look to improve their roster by other means.

“Every team – not just us, all other 29 teams as well as us – are always looking for ways to improve their roster, be it the draft, free agency, G League, whatever,” Ham said. “We’re definitely trying to access all those resources and exhaust all those possible resources to put the best possible team out there for 2022-23.”

Technically, the Lakers can only make changes through free agency and trade. There aren’t many impactful free agents remaining, and the Lakers only have veteran minimum contracts to offer, leaving trades as their best avenue for improvement.

The Lakers have 13 players, two less than the league maximum of 15. Ham said that the team isn’t looking for a particular position but clarified that 3-point shooting is a priority. Brown is the only addition who shot at or above league average on 3-pointers last season (he was right at the league-average mark of 35.4 percent).

“You can never have too many shooters, first and foremost,” Ham said. “But we’re just looking for the best possible basketball players that we can put a lacquer jersey on.”

The Lakers already have two of the best players in the league in James and Davis. Westbrook was supposed to be the third star who would elevate them back to contention, but he flamed out last season.

It’s becoming clear that the Lakers can find better options for their roster than Westbrook as long as they’re willing to sacrifice long-term draft capital. If they don’t trade for Irving, the Lakers can still pursue a deal with another team, likely the Indiana Pacers.

Publicly, though, the party line is that Westbrook is part of their future, and they built their roster with him in mind – something Westbrook himself surely doesn’t believe.

When asked if he’s been able to connect with James, Davis and Westbrook at the same time and work on building better camaraderie with the trio for next season, Ham dismissed their lack of interaction as they simply being busy during the summer peak.

“This is a funny time of year,” Ham said. “I mean, it’s good. AD has a newborn on the way. These guys have busy schedules. They’re busy guys. Russ is doing his fashion thing. LeBron has a zillion things going on. Absolutely, we’ve been lockstep in communication, but it’s hard when guys have business outside of basketball.

“But they do a good job of staying connected in terms of whenever I need them. Whenever I need thoughts from all three of them, they’re right there with me. ”

How much longer Westbrook is right there with the group will be determined in the coming days, weeks and possibly months, depending on how long the respective Durant and Irving situations drag out. It’s still unlikely that Westbrook is a Laker past the 2023 trade deadline.

But the tension has certainly risen, to some extent. The cold James-Westbrook dynamic at Friday’s game is a consequence of the awkward situation the Lakers find themselves as they wait for Westbrook’s future to be resolved.

(Photo: Kyle Terada / USA Today)

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