Entering play on Tuesday, the Los Angeles Lakers are 22-25 and seemingly a far cry from being a realistic championship contender. And yet, they’re the Lakers. They have LeBron James. And Anthony Davis, if he can come back healthy and dominant. And as such, nobody seems ready to completely rule them out.
Including Pat Riley.
Speaking with ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, Riley said he doesn’t believe that it’s the pursuit of the all-time scoring record that keeps LeBron James motivated as he continues to play at an All-NBA level in his 20th season. It’s the pursuit of championships, which Riley believes remains a realistic pursuit with this current Lakers team.
“I’m not speaking to anything that he might say in the media, but that’s his only reason to continue to play,” Riley said of James’ hunger for another ring. “Breaking the scoring record will be big for him if it happens, and it will happen. But he wants to win titles; that’s what drives him. And so for him to continue to play at this level, with that hope that this [Lakers] team is going to come together out there and Anthony Davis gets back, I think they got a shot. I really do. And I believe he believes that, too.”
For the people that agree with Riley, this is why it’s been so hard to accept the Lakers unwillingness to give up at least one of their future first-round picks (2027 or 2029), if not both, to bolster a roster that is capable of competing for a title with LeBron still playing at this level.
But you can understand the Lakers’ hesitance, too. The leap from where the team is now to a legitimate title contender, even in a wide-open landscape, is big. They made the move for Rui Hachimura, but that isn’t an addition that significantly moves the championship needle — though Hachimura does fill big needs with the potential to be a helpful floor spacer, secondary scorer and wing defender.
The Lakers might not be done dealing. Bojan Bogdanovic has been a name connected with the Lakers in potential trade talks all season, but reported on Tuesday that Detroit desires an unprotected first-round pick in exchange for the 6-foot-7 shooter. The Lakers, at this point, would want a lottery protection on either of the first-round picks they might give up.
Again, this is understandable. Those first-round picks could be the Lakers’ only real currency to jumpstart the post-LeBron era. Would it really be wise to move them, without protection, to sneak into the playoffs and maybe pull a first-round upset?
This has been a tough call all season, and it’s not going to get any easier. But Riley isn’t alone in thinking the Lakers competing for a title this year isn’t out of the question. Heck, it sounds like Riley believes they can compete even without a significant trade. That’s probably a stretch, if only because Davis remaining healthy for the remainder of the season and through four playoff rounds feels like a sucker’s bet. But with the way Davis was playing before the injury, if you want to assume health, there is reason for at least slight optimism.