Another disappointing Lakers loss ignites more LeBron James frustration, cryptic social media posts

ATLANTA — Twenty minutes before the Los Angeles Lakers and Atlanta Hawks tipped off at State Farm Arena, a three-letter tweet from Christian Wood added to Los Angeles’ growing list of problems.

Wood, the team’s backup center behind Anthony Davis, tweeted “Lol” without further context. Ten minutes earlier, the game’s starting lineups had been announced, with third-string center Jaxson Hayes starting in place of Davis, who missed the second night of the back-to-back with bilateral Achilles tendinopathy and left hip spasms.

Given the timing, it was reasonable to question whether Wood’s tweet was in response to the starting lineup. Entering the game, Wood averaged nearly double the amount of minutes and more than double the points and rebounds per game of Hayes. When the Lakers signed Wood over the offseason, part of the pitch for the talented big man was they would need him to step into a larger role on nights the team was missing Davis. This was that kind of night.

After the Lakers’ 138-122 loss to the Hawks, Los Angeles’ fifth straight game giving up at least 125 points, Wood — who logged nine points and eight rebounds in 22 minutes off the bench — denied that his tweet was related to the starting lineup decision.

“I meant to quote (tweet) something,” Wood said. “I thought I did and I just pressed send, and I couldn’t check my phone before because we have to go out (to the court), but it was an accident. … I looked at it just now. … It came off a certain type of way. I didn’t mean it that way.

“Not basketball related, definitely not basketball related.”

When relayed Wood’s tweet and the speculation around its meaning, Ham said he wasn’t aware of the controversy.

“I’m not on social media,” Ham said. “I don’t have everybody running and grabbing hold of stuff like that and throwing it at me unless it’s presented to me in this forum. That said, there’s a lot of things he and all of us can do better. I thought he was solid overall tonight. Tried to help give us a chance. And we decided to keep him in his role and where he’s been for some time, and give Jax the opportunity to come out with the energy he played with last night. …

“We’re constantly looking for balance with our lineup. It’s not a popularity contest. We’re looking to mix and match our players that will be most effective in helping us get a win.”

Tweetgate was the latest bizarre development in what is shaping up to be a disappointing January for the Lakers. They were supposed to pad their record with 10 of their 15 games at home, but instead, they’ve continued to spiral, finishing the month 7-8 while ducking back under .500 on the season at 24-25. Even with Davis out, the Hawks were a less-than-formidable opponent, entering the night eight games under .500 and having lost four of their previous five games.

Los Angeles is now 1-2 on its six-game Grammy-induced road trip, having lost back-to-back games in blowout fashion after a double-overtime victory over the Golden State Warriors. LA has games against the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets remaining.

Multiple players this road trip have harped on defensive communication, transition defense and defensive rebounding. Zooming out, they’ve been issues for most of the season. But 50 games into the season, why is communication still an issue for a group that has largely maintained the same roster since last season?

“If I had that answer, it’d be fixed,” Austin Reaves said. “I think individually we had to sit down and look ourselves in the mirror and kind of just ask what are we bringing to the table and start there. And then after that, like you said, that should have already been done. But we’re better than what our record indicates, I believe.”

“Having a back-to-back, no AD, it’s different circumstances,” Ham said. “You can use them as excuses. Or, you can say, ‘Hey, the whole league goes through it. We gotta look ourselves in the mirror and man the hell up.’”

It isn’t the first time Ham has challenged his players to “man up” this season. He prefers to keep criticism internal, but has been increasingly vocal about the players’ energy and effort, especially since The Athletic reported on a growing disconnect between Ham and the locker room earlier this month. Since then, fans and media alike have combed through postgame availability for sub-disses from player to coach, and vice versa. Some on social media are breaking down in-game huddles like Zapruder films. The disjointedness since the team’s In-Season Tournament triumph has only grown more apparent with each passing loss.

Wood may have denied the intentions behind his tweet, but he made it clear he believes he could be helping the team more with a bigger role.

“I mean I would love to do more, but I’ve been playing I think around 14, 15 minutes a night, 20, 22 minutes tonight,” Wood said. “So if I have the opportunity to, I would definitely try to.”

Wood wasn’t the only player advocating for a different approach. Jarred Vanderbilt, a regular starter during last season’s post trade-deadline run and the team’s top perimeter defender when healthy, was asked what the Lakers have to do to address their recent defensive struggles.

“I think we should be a defensive-minded team to start the game,” Vanderbilt responded. “I think our defense should ignite our offense.”

When asked if he believes his left heel, which has caused him to miss 21 games this season, is healthy enough to assume a larger role — including the possibility of returning to the starting lineup — Vanderbilt left that decision up to the coaching staff.

“I’m still getting there,” Vanderbilt said. “It’s been a couple of months now, so I do feel great, a lot better. Obviously, I don’t pay attention to the lineups. It’s not my call. I just try to go out there and play hard every single night. That’s all I can focus (on) and worry about. Let them take care of the rest.”

Regardless of the palpable frustration and frequent subtle digs from players, especially over the past few weeks, a head coaching change isn’t expected to be coming anytime soon. As The Athletic reported last week, Ham is expected to be safe through at least the rest of the regular season. That could always change if the Lakers’ season goes further off the rails — as it has been on the verge of doing several times over the past month — but at that point, a coaching change wouldn’t have the immediate impact the organization would hope for so late in the season.

Ham has been reluctant to change the starting lineup after committing to Davis, James, Taurean Prince, Reaves and D’Angelo Rusell, but he even he questioned the team’s starts to halves recently, particularly on defense.

“I just told the team after the game, we gotta figure out how to give more resistance defensively with those first and third quarters,” Ham said.

That could come in the form of a trade before the Feb. 8 deadline. The backdrop to Tuesday’s tilt was the ongoing trade negotiations between the Lakers and the Hawks centered on Atlanta guard Dejounte Murray. If the game was an audition, Murray put on quite the display, posting 24 points (11-for-19 shooting), nine assists and two steals as he hounded Russell and Reaves full court for stretches.

With Davis out and more offensive opportunities available, Reaves scored a season-high 28 points and dished six assists. But Russell floundered, scoring just nine points on 3-for-11 shooting. It was the second time he’s struggled on the road against a team to which he’s been linked in trade talks – he scored just two points on 1-6 shooting in Chicago against the Bulls on Dec. 20. At one point, Hawks fans chanted “We don’t want you!” when Russell was at the free throw line. (They also chanted “Overrated!” at Reaves and “You’re not Michael!” and “You’re not Kobe!” at James.)

After the game, Murray and Russell, the two figures at the center of the Lakers’ trade talks with Atlanta, embraced and shared a moment.

At this point, it’s fair to question if a trade would even address some of the Lakers’ deep-seated issues. They have been consistently inconsistent, with wild swings night to night. In some games, the defense is the issue. In some games, it’s the offense. The players and coaching staff rarely seem like they’re on the same page, whether on the court or in media sessions.

“We could, on any given night, beat any team in the NBA,” James said. “And then on any given night, we can get our ass kicked by any team in the NBA. That’s just the (facts). What’s our record? Under .500? What, 24-25? That’s where we are.”

Things don’t get any easier for the Lakers. They first take a treacherous trip to Boston Thursday to face the league-leading Celtics, who are an NBA-best 22-2 at home. Two days later, they face the Eastern Conference’s No. 3 seeded New York Knicks, who are 17-5 at home and have won 14 of their last 16 games. A four-game losing streak would match the Lakers’ longest of the season.

At the end of his press conference, James was asked for his message to his teammates ahead of the Boston and New York games.

“I don’t have any message for my teammates,” James said bluntly. “Just go out and do your job.”

James started his next sentence with, “I mean …” before chuckling to himself and trailing off, his frustration clear. A team staffer thanked him and the interview concluded.

“Appreciate it,” James said as he was turned away from the media scrum. “Way to cut me off. Because I was about to go in.”

It was another crisis averted — at least temporarily. A few hours later, James ended the evening with an ominous tweet of his own.

(Top photo of LeBron James: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

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