The Los Angeles Lakers were not in a great place ahead of the N.B.A. trade deadline on Thursday. They had disgruntled stars, a losing record and a general air of dysfunction a couple of months before the playoffs were scheduled to start.
The bad news? Nothing changed once the trade deadline passed. Same disgruntled stars. Same losing record. Same general air of dysfunction.
As some stiff winds of change swept through the N.B.A. on Thursday, the Lakers continued hobbling forward as constructed, which does not bode well for their future. It is an indictment of a franchise that still employs LeBron James and Anthony Davis, two stars who are part of a hodgepodge cast of aging and ill-fitting pieces.
Exhibit A: Russell Westbrook, whose inconsistent play at age 33 has landed him on the bench in crunchtime situations. If the Lakers were looking to trade him this week, there was an obvious problem: Who would take him and his contract? He is making $44 million this season, with a player option worth $47 million next season.
In a post-deadline conference call with the team’s beat writers, Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka did not offer specific details but said he was “aggressive in a lot of conversations trying to improve this team.” Nothing panned out.
As for Westbrook’s future?
“Russ is a big-hearted individual. He wants to win,” Pelinka said. “And he knows that with players as impactful and influential as Anthony and LeBron are, it’s going to require sacrifices in his game and how he plays.”
On Wednesday night, Westbrook sat out the Lakers’ loss to the Portland Trail Blazers with what the team described as a stiff back. Afterward, Lakers Coach Frank Vogel said Westbrook had been engaged with his teammates on the bench. That might have been the only bright spot for the Lakers, who are 26-30 ahead of their game against Golden State on Saturday.
“I do know this has been an extremely difficult and challenging season for all of us,” Vogel said, “so there is a toll.”
Those words preceded a dizzying trade deadline for a whole bunch of teams not named the Lakers. At the top of that list: The Nets agreed to send James Harden to the 76ers as part of a deal for Ben Simmons, Seth Curry and Andre Drummond. Other big names were on the move, including Kristaps Porzingis, whom the Dallas Mavericks traded to the Washington Wizards for Spencer Dinwiddie. The Boston Celtics beefed up their backcourt by trading for Derrick White. The Charlotte Hornets acquired Montrezl Harrell from Washington for a late-season push.
While the Lakers could still be active in the buyout market, it seems impossible to envision a way in which they could reinvent themselves as a realistic championship contender. They were limited at the trade deadline after having already sacrificed so many assets, including future draft picks, in their deals for Davis and Westbrook.
On Wednesday night, the eve of the trade deadline, James said he was tired.
“I just want to get some wine and get up tomorrow,” said James, who helped deliver a championship to the Lakers just two seasons ago. “I feel good about what tomorrow has in store, and we’ll see what happens.”
He added: “But other than that, I’m kind of just focused on what we can do to be better.”
It is a long list. Entering Thursday, the Lakers ranked 17th in defensive rating, 22nd in offensive rating and 26th in turnovers. Westbrook has committed 224 turnovers this season, more than any other player in the league.
It was only August when the Lakers acquired him from the Wizards in exchange for Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Harrell and draft picks. While James seemed to acknowledge his role in recruiting Westbrook to the Lakers — “It was exciting helping put this team together this summer,” James said before the start of the season — Westbrook seemed thrilled about returning to Los Angeles, where he grew up and played in college at U.C.L.A. He went so far as to call it a “blessing.”
It was not difficult, though, to anticipate problems before the experiment began. The Lakers, with the oldest roster in the league, were built to compete for championships — eight years ago. In fairness, James said it would be a process to form chemistry. (It would not, he famously said, be “peanut butter and jelly” right away.) But a process usually leads to some form of improvement, and the Lakers, if anything, have regressed recently, having lost six of their last eight games.
James and Davis have been limited because of knee injuries — Davis missed a huge chunk of the season, and there are broader concerns about the state of James’s 37-year-old body — but Westbrook is a shadow of the player who won the N.B.A.’s Most Valuable Award with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2017.
In 55 games with the Lakers, Westbrook is averaging 18.3 points per game — the fewest he has averaged since his second season in the league in 2009-10 — while shooting 43.5 percent from the field and just 29.8 percent from 3-point range.
At the same time, he has started to gripe about his diminished role.
“You never know when you’re coming in, you never know when you’re coming out,” he said this week.
On Wednesday, James compared the trade deadline to being in a fog.
“We’re all trying to see what’s on the other side of it,” he said.
On Thursday, the fog dissipated. The view was unpleasant.