I’d like to start off this article by saying I was wrong.
With 23 games left in the season, I thought LeBron James would take the onus on himself to will the Lakers into the postseason.
I thought a healthier Lakers squad would emerge from the cluster at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture.
I was wrong.
While the Lakers are not mathematically out of the playoff race with 18 games left, realistically, they are not going to make the postseason after Monday’s 113-105 loss to the Clippers.
The Lakers don’t hold the tiebreaker over the Clippers or Spurs, the two teams currently occupying the 7th and 8th seeds, respectively.
The Kings also have a game left against the Lakers, and if recent play is any indication of how that contest will go, Los Angeles might as well start planning for the offseason.
But before we get to the summer, let’s break down exactly what went wrong for the Lakers.
First off, Los Angeles was absolutely crushed by the injury bug.
The team was 20-14 and in fourth place in the West after beating the Warriors on Christmas Day, but James would miss 18 of the team’s next 19 games with a groin injury — the Lakers went 7-12 in those contests.
James’ injury is the single largest factor in why this team is in its current position, but he hasn’t been the only one hit with an injury setback.
Lonzo Ball has missed the last 17 games recovering from an ankle injury and doesn’t seem close to returning. He will be re-evaluated in one week according to the team, but there’s little reason for optimism.
On the court, the Lakers have missed Ball’s impact on the defensive end, which has been a key factor in their slide. Throw in Brandon Ingram, who has missed time this season due to injuries and a four-game suspension, and LA’s often been without an important trio of playmakers.
The Lakers have played 23 games with James, Ball and Ingram healthy. They went 15-8 in those games.
While every team deals with injuries, no one has suffered more injuries to key players than Los Angeles this year. Case in point: I didn’t even mention Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart’s recent injury woes.
We haven’t even scrutinized the ordeal that was the Lakers’ trade deadline saga, which took a new turn in the last few days.
That’s because Lakers owner Jeanie Buss told Sam Amick of The Athletic that she felt there was “fake news” surrounding the Lakers’ highly publicized pursuit of Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis. Buss also said that team president of basketball operations Magic Johnson adequately addressed the situation with LA’s players after the deadline passed.
The only “fake news” here is Buss’ comments.
The Lakers have gone 2-7 since Johnson reportedly talked to the team in Philadelphia, including losses to the lottery-bound Grizzlies, Hawks, Pelicans and Suns.
It’s been debated ad nauseam whether or not James was involved in any of the Lakers’ potential trade deadline deals, but it’s hard not to make the connection to James’ involvement — especially when you realize that he shares an agent with Davis and has publicly spoken about his appreciation for AD’s game.
James’ rumored campaign for Davis reportedly led to the Lakers offering up almost all of their roster in an attempt to free the disgruntled Davis from New Orleans. Can you imagine how awkward LA’s locker room must have been after the dust settled and the Lakers’ trade bait remained on the roster?
To make matters worse, Lakers head coach Luke Walton has not been given any sense of job security.
Walton has Buss’ support, but Johnson and Lakers GM Rob Pelinka didn’t hire him. Every indication points to Walton being let go at the end of the season whether the Lakers miraculously make the playoffs or not.
If you’re a desperate Walton, you’d point to the mostly underwhelming roster — minus LeBron, of course — that you’re working with.
Coming into the season, the Lakers only had three players shooting above 37 percent from behind the arc.
Here’s a season comparison for those players.
|3-Point Shooting Splits||Josh Hart||Brandon Ingram||Kentavious Caldwell-Pope|
Despite the lack of shooting, Walton had the Lakers in playoff position after Christmas Day behind a stellar defensive unit. That defense slipped after James’ injury, then jumped off a cliff when Ball went down.
|Lakers’ Defensive Rating Splits||Defensive Rating||Defensive Rating Rank|
|Opening Day – Dec. 26||106.5||10th|
|Dec. 27 – James’ Return||108.0||7th|
|James’ Return – March 5||116.3||27th|
Despite those unfortunate circumstances, Walton wasn’t without fault.
His offensive system was poor and he mismanaged the team’s rotations at times. While the Lakers improved their win mark in the first two seasons under Walton (and likely will this year as well), that progression won’t mean anything after this year’s debacle.
The question now is how the Lakers re-tool after (likely) missing the playoffs for a sixth straight season.
It’s unlikely Walton will come back, but Johnson and Pelinka will probably remain in the front office. They’ll be responsible for hiring Los Angeles’ next head coach, who not only has to be able to get the most out of the team’s young talent, but implement a scheme to maximize James’ talents given his age and mileage.
If James, who some believe should sit once the Lakers are officially out of the playoff hunt, plays the rest of the season at his current average of 35.7 minutes per game, he’ll have logged north of 56,600 career minutes, including postseason play.
That’s the equivalent of 14.4 full NBA seasons, which is why the Lakers need a healthy James in order to contend for the rest of his time in Hollywood. They’ll have to manage his minutes carefully the remainder of this year.
As for the rest of the roster, Los Angeles has a relatively blank canvas entering the offseason.
James, Ball, Ingram, Kuzma, Hart, Moritz Wagner and Isaac Bonga are the only players under contract for 2019-’20. The team has the chance to attract a superstar free agent, but will also look to add more shooting around James.
Enter Reggie Bullock, a deadline acquisition who might be retained on a cheaper contract. And given the aforementioned Caldwell-Pope’s relationship with Klutch Sports Group, the same agency that represents James, he could also be retained by LA if he doesn’t get a long-term offer from another club.
The Lakers also control their 2019 draft pick, which should fall in the late lottery. Los Angeles has the chance to grab a developmental role player with that selection or could use it in a trade to acquire an immediate contributor.
Whether it’s through the draft, free agency or a mix of both, it’s up to Johnson and Pelinka to do everything in their power to surround James with a quality roster this offseason.
And if they accomplish that, then the next three years of the “LABron” era could be something special.