EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — It’s less than 24 hours before the NBA trade deadline and there’s a sense of calmness surrounding Julius Randle on Wednesday afternoon.
Since last summer, Randle has heard his name repeatedly tied to the Los Angeles Lakers‘ future plans and how Magic Johnson wants to pursue superstars such as LeBron James and/or Paul George in free agency and how to land them, the Lakers might have to jettison Randle and another Laker, perhaps Jordan Clarkson, to create cap room.
Talk of trade rumors and the Lakers’ summer shopping spree only intensified during the season with Randle, Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. hearing their names mentioned often.
The uncertainty of the Lakers’ future, regarding not just Thursday’s trade deadline but also the upcoming offseason, has hung over the team like an ominous cloud. It has seeped into the locker room, creating a tense environment at times. Even as the Lakers’ front office has tempered expectations for this summer and adjusted its thinking to include 2019 free agency in case the team doesn’t hit it big this summer, some players still were wondering what management might do before Thursday.
Randle, Clarkson, Nance and the rest of the Lakers have been expected to play as hard as they can, to put an entertaining product on the floor while many of them don’t know if they will be here past Thursday or past this July.
But as the first hurdle comes in the form of the trade deadline, Randle and Nance say they have accepted their professional fate and whatever comes next.
“There’s definitely a human side,” Randle said as he leaned on a wall at the Lakers’ practice facility under a window that displays the team’s championship trophies. “There’s going to be ups, there’s going to be downs, the frustration, there’s going to be happy times. Whatever it is, life’s not perfect.
“For me, it is about my family, I have a son, I have a wife. I owe it to them [to play hard and be professional], I sacrifice a lot of time working on my game in the summer, spending time away from them, so I owe it to them.”
When the Lakers lost nine games in a row in December and January, Luke Walton’s team could have gone into the tank. Some players were frustrated with minutes, roles and uncertainty about their futures. Even though these are professional athletes who are handsomely compensated, it was easy to wonder if some players would continue to play hard for an organization that might not keep them around in the future. It would have been easy for some Lakers to continuously pout.
Also, after the ninth straight loss, LaVar Ball, father of Lakers rookie Lonzo, said Walton had lost the locker room. The Lakers’ season could have shattered at that point. Instead, they’ve played their best basketball of the season, winning 11 of 15 games since then, with George and the Oklahoma City Thunder playing the Lakers (22-31) for the final time this season Thursday.
The players decided to put aside the things they can’t control and try to win as many games as possible. And over the past 31 days (Jan. 7 through Feb. 7), the only team with a better winning percentage than the Lakers (.733, 11-4) is the Houston Rockets (.875, 14-2).
“I have been talking to guys like, ‘Hey, if you are traded, you are traded. There is nothing you can do about it,’ ” said Nance, whose leadership was cited by Walton as one reason why the Lakers have managed to handle the trade rumors for the past several weeks. “Speculating or being upset about it before it happens does you, does the organization, does anybody no good. There is nothing we can do about it. We’re just pawns in the game at this point. So you put your head down, play hard, play for us.
“Jordan struggled with [trade rumors] for a couple of games,” Nance added. “Julius struggled with it for a couple of games. As did I. But it is all about winning. I think we all kind of came together and was like, look, whether we are going to be here for another two weeks, another two months, it is not going to be any fun losing. So might as well leave a good impression if we are going to be gone. Winning gets everybody paid. Winning makes everybody happy and that is the goal. We all kind of checked our egos, checked our own personal problems at the gym door and are playing pretty good basketball.”
Love, I get so lost, sometimes
Days pass and this emptiness fills my heart
When I want to run away I drive off in my car
But whichever way I go
I come back to the place you are
Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” is blaring at the team’s practice facility as Randle talks about wanting to remain with the Lakers and dealing with trade rumors all season.
He came into the season in the best shape of his life, sculpting his body to the point where general manager Rob Pelinka noted that the big man “could be on the cover of Men’s Fitness or something.” The Lakers, though, did not work out a contract extension with Randle at the start of the season, meaning he’ll be a restricted free agent this summer. Management had to keep their cap space and options open.
Walton then decided to bring Randle into games off the bench for the first two months. Randle’s playing time fluctuated as his teammates knew they needed him. A heart-to-heart team meeting followed and Randle was inserted into the starting lineup the next game against the Clippers on Dec. 29. He has been a starter ever since, averaging 16.8 points and 9.2 rebounds while posting nine double-doubles in 20 starts.
Since Jan. 7, Randle is averaging 22.3 points, 11.9 rebounds and 4.0 assists per 36 minutes. The only other player over that span with comparable per-36 averages is Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (25.8/11.3/4.8), according to NBA Advanced Stats.
While Randle felt the love from his teammates and the Lakers’ fervent fan base that often showed its support and desire for the big man to start, his name still came up frequently when the team’s future was debated.
Randle, who has been a matchup problem for opponents and a key in the Lakers’ defensive switching scheme, stayed off social media and tried to focus on his game. He leaned on his wife Kendra and thought about his son Kyden whenever things got rough.
“You know, I can’t … what example am I setting for my son if things get hard and I just lay down and quit or whatever it is or don’t give my full 100 percent?” Randle said. “So there’s going to be a time when I get older and I can look back and my son’s going to be going through something. I tell my wife this all the time, he’s going to be going through something, and there’s going to be adversity and I have the perfect example for him of how to fight through adversity, and in the end it really just all works out. For me, it is bigger than basketball.”
Like Randle, Clarkson, who is owed $25.9 million over the next two seasons, has heard his name come up plenty in trade rumors. There have been teams expressing interest in both veterans. The Lakers ideally would want draft assets or a promising prospect, who won’t take up cap space, if they were to part with two of their most valuable players this season.
Clarkson has been the Lakers’ sixth man, providing instant offense off the bench for much of the season. But there have been times when he has struggled, such as scoring four points in three consecutive games in December and averaging 9.5 points over a seven-game stretch in mid-January.
Then Clarkson got hot and averaged 21.2 points over an eight-game tear before scoring seven points in the Lakers’ win over Phoenix on Tuesday. Despite his struggles in that game — the Lakers’ final one before the deadline — Clarkson sprinted full speed into courtside seats chasing down a loose ball with the team up 17 late.
“That’s all we can do. That’s all we can control,” Randle said of playing hard. “Yeah, it’s easy to sulk. It’s natural human reaction, when things are tough, to lay down. But me and J.C. from Texas, there’s no lay down in us at all.”
Clarkson leads the NBA with 274 points off the bench since Jan. 1, just ahead of the Clippers’ Lou Williams (270) over that span, according to NBA Advanced Stats. Over the season, only Williams (813) has more bench points than Clarkson (732).
Whether or not they will be part of the Lakers’ future, Randle and Clarkson decided to just play and try not to let the rumors affect their performance.
“It just really happened naturally and organically,” Randle said. “We realized what the situation was. Regardless of how many minutes we’re playing or whatever it is, starting or not, we are going to go out there and give it our best because we owe it to the team, to our coaches, we owe it to our family, that’s really all it was.”
Nance, who was chosen by teammates as one of three captains this season, admits that he was affected by hearing his name mentioned in trade talks a month ago. Naturally, he began to wonder about his value to the Lakers.
“I try to be in guys’ ears about if the shot doesn’t fall, you can still control what happens to your defense and your effort and stuff like that,” Nance said about being a leader. “But now I had to practice what I preach when my name got brought up in all this stuff and thrown into the round of rumors.
“[You hear] something like now Larry Nance is included in the block with those other guys,” Nance added just as Ball walked by and shouted “baloney.” “I was like, ‘Oh well, OK.’ That is kind of what takes your mind off things and leads to guys sulking like, ‘Man, I am not valued here anymore.’ Like, what am I doing, I can go to a team that does value me and stuff like that. It takes a strong mind and a good support system to get through that. And I think we have been that for each other.”
Nance, who has three double-doubles and six games with two or more steals in the past 13 games, said some players have talked to one another about the trade rumors and how to best handle them.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Lakers’ recent surge has come at the same time Randle, Clarkson and Nance have come to grips with hearing their names mentioned so often.
“Honestly, it’s kind of come from us three,” Nance said of how some Lakers have kept from sulking when thinking about the uncertain future. “Julius has done a terrific job with it all year, J.C. has done a great job with it. And then I try to, recently when I got brought up.
“If you’re sulking or not playing your best basketball, it don’t hurt anybody but you. It doesn’t do anything but hurt other teams’ view of you. Or hurt your stock in potential trades or potential free agency. So in sulking, there’s not a whole lot of good that can come out of it.”
Walton has preached to his team all season to control what you can control. He notes how Nance, Randle and Clarkson have been critical to the team’s turnaround and how they helped set an example with how they handled the rumors.
Ball said he has seen how the team has come together and not allowed the chatter to tear it apart during his 11-game absence because of a sprained MCL.
“They know what works — pace and defense,” Ball said. “We’ve been doing that and that’s why they’ve been winning. As long as everybody plays together, we just stay in the locker room and don’t worry about all the trading and [rumors] that’s been going on, we should be OK.”
The Lakers have listened to offers and explored trades as they do their due diligence. And even if they aren’t moved by the trading deadline, Randle and Nance know they probably will be dealing with this again come NBA draft time, the free agency period and even potentially next season.
The Lakers could create $60 million in salary cap space in July 2019 if they were to move Randle or Clarkson now or at the draft and find a resolution to Luol Deng’s remaining $36.8 million. But the Lakers won’t want to let a young player such as Randle go if they don’t upgrade their talent in free agency or by trade.
Randle planned on spending the night before the deadline going through his normal routine on the night before a game — spending time with his family and watching Netflix shows “El Chapo” and “Surviving Escobar.”
“I love it here, I love my coaching staff, you know, Luke has been great for me, the assistant coaches, I love my teammates here, so I would love to stay here and finish the season,” Randle said. “We’ve got something good going right now. We’re growing. But regardless, you’ve got to understand it’s a business. And the front office is going to do what they feel like is best for them. Regardless of what happens, I have had a great time here, but I would love to stay. Regardless, it doesn’t matter [because it is out of my control].”
Nance said he would have a quiet dinner with his fiancée in the hours before the deadline.
“Whether I am in the gym all night or whether I am on my knees begging and pleading not to get traded, whether if I was begging to get traded, what is going to happen is going to happen,” Nance said. “And me worrying about it isn’t going to change anything or make a difference.
“The NBA is a revolving door, whether you are under contract, not under contract, guys come and go. I mean I started out here with [Robert] Sacre and Kobe [Bryant]. And now I got Kuz [Kyle Kuzma] and Josh Hart. The amount of turnover you see from year to year is crazy.
“The best ways to combat those rumors is to show them like, what do we need to change for?” Nance added. “We’ve got [one of] the best records in the NBA the past month. Why do we need to change? And I think we have been doing a good job of playing ball the right way and making our case to stay together.”