When LeBron James ventured West in search of a better future after a gruelling season with the floundering Cleveland Cavaliers, expectations were high for the Lakers this season. Yes, they were always outside contenders for the NBA title, but with LeBron and a young core they seemed a shoo-in for the playoffs and once you’re in the dance- anything can happen because it’s LeBron, right?
The Los Angeles Lakers are the 10th seed in the Western Conference. Three wins outside the 8th seed and facing an uphill battle to qualify for the playoffs. This would be the first time since 2004-2005 that LeBron would have missed the playoffs. The King is on track to miss the playoffs entirely after going to eight straight NBA finals.
The question is how has this happened? Is it LeBron’s age finally catching up with him? The Antony Davis trade drama destroying the confidence of the Lakers young core? Less than ideal free-agency additions such as JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley?
More than likely, it’s a combination of all these factors plus a few others. Here we take a look into why the King might miss the playoffs for the first time since the iPod shuffle was released, Liverpool won the Champions League and the Seattle Supersonics existed.
The Front Office
Something that is seemingly overlooked in the discourse surrounding the struggling Lakers is the mind-boggling personnel decisions made by Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka.
Flashback to 2018 free-agency and LA had just landed arguably the greatest basketball player of all time. They then proceed to surround him with an oddball lineup of “has-beens” and “never-were’s”.
After completely blowing the Paul George situation and not being able to tempt him away from Oklahoma City, Pelinka then signed: Rajon Rondo 31.4% 3pt shooter, Lance Stephenson 31.4% 3pt shooter, Michael Beasley 34% 3pt shooter. Can you see a pattern here? Pelinka also let Brook Lopez, one of the most effective stretch 5s in the game, walk to the Bucks to then go and sign JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler. LeBron, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma are not the reason the Lakers are struggling this year. Developing a team made for 2003 in 2019 was the problem.
Something that has actually hurt the Lakers play this season can be the constant trade rumours surrounding Ball, Ingram and Kuzma. Looking back, the writing was on the wall for one of, if not all, the Lakers young talent when the King arrived in the summer. This leads to the disastrous trade attempt. Pelinka and co. already whiffed on trying to acquire All-Star talent in Paul George last summer. However, the process of trying to acquire Anthony Davis turned the Lakers into the laughing stock of the league for 4 weeks.
The Lakers offered a King’s ransom for Davis yet it still wasn’t enough. After the trade deadline, the Lakers were left without a fellow All-Star to join a 34-year-old LeBron James and had a locker room filled with paranoia and uncertainty. Playing basketball at an NBA level is hard enough, but when you factor in the thought that you could get traded at any moment, it’s no wonder the Lakers play dipped during this tumultuous time.
LeBron and the ‘Young Core’
The focal point of much of the discussion surrounding the LeBron Lakers is how LeBron has ‘destroyed’ the cohesion, balance and future of the Lakers young core which consists of Ball, Ingram and Kuzma. Before LeBron arrived in LA, the Lakers finished last season 35-47, 11th in the Western Conference. The Lakers weren’t a contender before LeBron joined, they weren’t even a playoff team. All three of Kuzma, Ball and Ingram showed signs of what they can become in the future, yet LeBron does not have that time to spare.
James is currently 34, taking a year off in his career to ‘tank’ or develop young talent is not an option. James suffered a groin injury on Christmas Day in a blow-out victory over the Warriors. He missed 17 games and the Lakers form dropped substantially, from 4th in the West to 9th going 6-12.
There have been calls from the usual talking heads that LeBron’s play is hurting the Lakers and his lack of effort on defence is causing them to lose games against teams such as the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies. There is some truth in that LeBron could close out a tad more, yet the Lakers are missing Ball, one of the best defensive point guards in the league.
Let me put it like this: LeBron James is 34, he has played almost an extra three or four seasons in playoff games, he suffered a nagging groin injury, an injury which has caused him to alter his usual conditioning regime, resulting in him being out of basketball shape. Some have even estimated that James has gained an extra 20 pounds as a result of the injury. Arguably the greatest basketball player of all time has not suddenly become a detrimental factor to a basketball team. Father time is undefeated, but LeBron has a few extra rounds in him yet.
The summer of 2019 is going to be a pivotal moment in Lakers history. If all goes well and LA land Davis, as well as one of, if not two of Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker, Kevin Durant or DeMarcus Cousins, then LeBron is in prime position to cement his legacy as the greatest of all time. If not, the Lakers could be in a position where LeBron wants out within two years, and the King’s reign over LA could end up being a short one.