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The Lakers Aren’t Handling Limbo Very Well

First a shouting match in the locker room, and now a 42-point loss to the Pacers. Even if the Lakers’ roster remains intact through the deadline, there will be plenty to repair.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Indiana Pacers Photo by Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports

If you ever wondered what a team with half of its players being openly dangled in the most public of trade talks would play like, the Lakers provided a clear answer Tuesday night in a 136-94 loss to the Victor Oladipo–less Pacers. The Lakers were coming off an off day and played like they didn’t realize there was even a game. Or to be more specific, they played like a team that knew it could look entirely different the next time it suited up.

Tuesday’s 42-point loss was a stark contrast to Thursday’s win against the Clippers, after which players said they were energized by LeBron James’s return from a 17-game absence caused by a groin injury. In between, the Lakers lost to the Warriors without LeBron and Luke Walton reportedly got involved in a locker-room flare-up with veterans over decision-making. It was an ominous sign that only got worse on Tuesday. In the Lakers’ last game before this Thursday’s noon PT trade deadline, every Lakers player looked joyless and tuned out. But who can blame them? It must be hard to focus on winning a game for a team that’s willing to trade you to New Orleans for Anthony Davis as soon as the Pelicans say yes.

Every one of the Lakers players played in their own orbit and it threw the whole team off-kilter. Brandon Ingram looked aggressive at the start and scored 10 points in the first quarter, but he went on to score only two points the rest of the game. Kyle Kuzma went 0-for-4 from 3 and scored only 12 points. Rajon Rondo recorded six assists and three points, and he was a team-worst minus-32. The Lakers as a whole turned the ball over 19 times and allowed 33 points off turnovers and 25 fastbreak points, and were outrebounded by seven. Indiana bludgeoned them with ball movement and the type of on-court chemistry the Lakers clearly lack, and the Pacers shot over 56 percent from the field and over 55 percent from the 3-point line. At one point, Indiana fans chanted “LeBron’s gonna trade you” to Ingram while he was at the free throw line, and “not worth trading” to JaVale McGee.

James somehow still almost had a triple-double (18 points, seven rebounds, and nine assists), but he was not his usual self for most of the game. He looked relaxed on both ends and turned it on only for a couple of deep 3s and an impressive dunk. (He still led the team in points.) LeBron seemed removed once he checked out of the blowout, too:

This image, which circulated after the game, was worth a thousand words. But the numbers may be even more bleak. As The Ringer’s Zach Kram pointed out on Twitter, this was the Lakers’ seventh 40-point loss since 2014—the most in the league during that span; the Lakers had only two 40-point losses from 1960 to 2013. This was also the biggest loss of LeBron’s career; ironically, it came on the same night he crossed 32,000 career points.

These are not games the Lakers can afford to drop, either. As LeBron awaits the cavalry, the Lakers have fallen to two and a half games out of a playoff spot and are in the middle of a tough East Coast swing with Boston and Philly up next. Even if they don’t trade for Davis by Thursday, something has to change. But if Davis isn’t coming, the Lakers’ task is more difficult than simply working James and, eventually, Lonzo Ball back into the rotation.

Last Thursday, I asked Ivica Zubac how it felt to be in trade rumors so often and so publicly. “I look at it like, ‘They want me,’ so it’s a good thing,” Zubac said. “A month ago, I don’t think any team would want me.”

Nobody had expectations for Zubac heading into this season; he wasn’t even in the rotation until mid-December. But it’s different for Ingram, Kuzma, and Ball. They were talked up by everyone from LeBron to Magic Johnson as the future of the franchise. But as this week has shown, they are most valuable to the team as trade fodder. Sure, it’s a business, but how else do you explain two-way player Edmond Sumner scoring 17 points other than as a side effect of the trade talks? Lance Stephenson seemed to agree:

Within an hour of the game ending, a trade actually came to fruition, though it didn’t involve any of the players reportedly on the table for Davis. The Lakers agreed to send little-used rookie Svi Mykhailiuk and a second-round pick to Detroit for Reggie Bullock. The Lakers need some shooting on the wing, but the front office’s work is far from over.

“Maybe I should Bird Box,” Kuzma told reporters after Tuesday’s game in response to dealing with trade rumors. Maybe he should add a blindfold to his on-court accessories, but he might not even get a chance to. By the time Kuzma gets asked about it again, he might not be a Laker anymore. And if he, or Ingram, or Ball is still with the Lakers when the deadline buzzer sounds? There’s still plenty of work to be done.

“I don’t know if it’s that simple,” Rondo said when asked whether he was anticipating the deadline finally passing. “It’s not like the trade deadline happens and then everything is going to be back to normal.”