SportsPulse: It’s no secret that Lebron James and the Lakers are trending in the wrong direction this year and Jeff Zillgitt tells us why this might just be the most underwhelming season of his career.
Next season has arrived early for LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
While no one expected the Lakers to compete for a championship in James’ first year, a playoff berth this season was attainable. The picture was especially rosy after a 20-14 start that put them in fourth place after a Christmas Day win against Golden State.
With 15 games remaining, that’s not the case. While not yet mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, the Lakers are virtually done and probably will miss the postseason – a place they haven’t been since 2013 – again. Los Angeles is in 11th place and 6 1/2 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. James, who has made 13 consecutive postseason appearances and eight straight NBA Finals, likely will see those streaks end.
The 2018-19 season has been several mini-seasons for the Lakers’ ownership, front office, coaching staff and players. So much has happened – from the time the Lakers landed James until the team shut down Lonzo Ball for the season with an ankle injury.
The season has taken so many turns, ESPN NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy suggested everything should be on the table for the Lakers in the offseason, including trading James.
USA TODAY NBA reporters Jeff Zillgitt and Martin Rogers analyze how the Lakers’ season unfolded, evolved an`d finally, crumpled. What’s next for one of the NBA’s most iconic teams?
In a 36-word statement from James’ representation on July 1, it was announced that James planned to sign a four-year, $154 million contract with the Lakers.
Finally, the Lakers landed a superstar in free agency after seasons of striking out on big names. And not only did they get a superstar, they got one of the game’s all-time greatest players. The Lakers had the guy they believed could and would lead them back to championship contention.
In 2017-18, James, who was 33 when he signed with the Lakers, had one of his best seasons. There was no reason to believe his production would suffer a precipitous decline any time soon. He still has great years remaining.
From owner Jeanie Buss to president of basketball operations Magic Johnson to general manager Rob Pelinka to coach Luke Walton, the Lakers had reason to smile. But smiles don’t last forever. Not even a season.
The roster construction
The start of free agency was much better than the rest of free agency for Los Angeles. After James, the Lakers began signing players to one-year deals that resulted in a flawed, head-strong roster with not much reliable three-point shooting: Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Michael Beasley.
James has had outstanding three-point shooters on his roster in making the Finals – Mike Miller, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Kyle Korver, Channing Frye, Kyrie Irving. This Lakers team is lacking that kind of shooter, and it turned out to be a glaring problem as the season unfolded.
WHERE’S LEBRON? Remember 2005, last NBA postseason without star
CLICK & ROLL: Be first to get exclusive NBA content in your inbox
The roster construction was the first sign that 2018-19 could be a lost season for the Lakers as they tried to figure out who among the young players (Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart) and veterans would be with the team long-term. All this, while preserving salary cap space for free agents in the summer of 2019. It also was a roster that did not scream playoff appearance in a deep Western Conference despite James’ presence.
Johnson and Pelinka put this roster together and shoulder that burden.
The early fight
It didn’t take long for the Lakers to realize that putting together a cohesive and productive line-up was going to be one heck of a fight. And … there was even an actual fight, in only the second game of the season, as James’ friend Chris Paul and Rondo let their fists fly during the home opener against Houston.
Thank you! You’re almost signed up for
Keep an eye out for an email to confirm your newsletter registration.
Even with James, Los Angeles didn’t look much better than its miserable recent past in the opening weeks, losing the first three games and going 2-5 before things began to trend upwards.
By then, talk already had begun about what moves would need to be made for the Lakers to become competitive, with Anthony Davis’ name at the top of the list. But during this phase James firmly was committed to getting the younger core of the team involved, even in late-game scenarios.
It may have cost them some early victories, but there was evidence to suggest better times lay ahead.
Story continues below gallery
Getting it together
Into December, James’ efforts were starting to pay dividends and the Lakers were starting to get into a comfortable and confident rhythm. Kevin Durant had plenty to say, describing the atmosphere around James as “toxic” and suggesting the media fawning over him would hurt the team’s chances of signing big free agents.
But in truth, it appeared Durant’s comments already were outdated. On Dec. 5, James poured in 42 points in a rousing victory over the San Antonio Spurs to push the record to 15-9. Preseason predictions, which almost uniformly hovered around the 48-win mark, began to seem too cautious.
Given how much the Lakers had improved in such a short time, plus how well Ball, Ingram and Hart were starting to play, there was a sense that the Lakers might end up with a very respectable position in the playoff seedings, and do some damage when they got there.
After the injury, came the Tweet. You remember, the one where, after going down hurt against the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day, James celebrated having “dodged a bullet.”
But it was no simple flesh wound to the Lakers. The reports were sketchy – Walton never lent clarity to whether James was likely to return in a day or a month after suffering the groin injury. Maybe he didn’t know himself. James eventually sat for 17 games. With him out, the Lakers went 6-11.
During that time the Davis saga reached its peak, as the trade deadline came and went as the Lakers’ front office and that of the Pelicans indulged in a phony war that helped no one.
Meanwhile, the Lakers’ game was falling apart. With acrimony swirling, the team drifted down the playoff pecking order. Up until the trade rumors made it seem like virtually the whole roster might be shipped out, morale still was relatively high. But when it fell, it did so drastically and the season started to lose its shape.
James came bouncing out of the All-Star break with enthusiasm, claiming his playoff mode had been “activated.” Instead, the decline was immediate and extraordinary. A defeat to the motivated Pelicans in the second game back after the break sparked a dismal 1-7 run, and turned the season into a punchline.
James’ colleagues, slighted by the perceived snub of being mere trade bait for Davis, walked around with slumped shoulders and the group played like a team devoid of confidence. James started sniping, with thinly veiled criticisms through the media becoming a consistent norm and, when things didn’t change, his body language became that of a frustrated, defeated, and fractious superstar.
In rapid order, the Lakers went from having a genuine shot at a low playoff seed to having none. Some of the losses were expected. Others, like against the Phoenix Suns and the dire Memphis Grizzlies, were not. Ball’s injury didn’t help, but it was already too far gone by then. By early March, Ball and Ingram (blood clot) were shut down for the season, and the Lakers announced James would be put on a minutes restriction.
If acquiring James was necessary last season for the Lakers’ future, this summer doubles down on what was at stake a year ago. And the Lakers can’t afford to lose.
They need to add All-Star(s) and quality role players, including the kind of shooting necessary to let James be at his best.
They have the means to make something happen, but will what happened this season impact what happens this summer? Are the Lakers an attractive destination? They have salary cap space to add a max player and the ability to make a trade to acquire another All-Star – perhaps re-engage with New Orleans for Davis.
ESPN front-office insider and former Brooklyn Nets executive Bobby Marks echoed Van Gundy, saying no player on the roster, James included, should be off-limits as the Lakers remake the team. In theory, the point makes sense. But the Lakers wanted James and to give up on him one year in based off one poor season with a flawed roster doesn’t make sense. And if the Lakers struggled to acquire high-profile free agents before James, jettisoning one of the game’s all-time greats wouldn’t be a good look.
Again, Johnson and Pelinka are on the clock.
“I would love for the team to be in the postseason,” James said Tuesday night. “… But right now, it’s not the hand I was dealt, so you play the hand that you were dealt until the dealer shuffles the cards and you’re dealt another hand and can do that.”