The Lakers are going to miss the playoffs for the sixth straight season, but this time it’ll be with LeBron James at the forefront. James has not missed the Finals in eight seasons. He hasn’t missed a postseason since 2004-05.
According to Stadium NBA Insider Shams Charania, “someone is going to take the fall” for the disastrous season in Los Angeles. The question is whether owner Jeanie Buss feels that blame falls on the coaching staff, the front office or the slew of injuries the team suffered this season. According to Charania, “there’s going to be changes” in Los Angeles this summer.
One thing is for sure: Injuries derailed this season for the Lakers and were the single largest factor in the team missing the playoffs. James will miss 18 games if he plays out the rest of the regular season on a minutes restriction, by far the most of any season in his storied career. Lonzo Ball, the team’s best defender, is likely out for the season after multiple re-evaluations. Brandon Ingram, who was on fire since the All-Star Break, is also out for the year with an arm injury.
The coaching staff, according to a report from The Athletic’s Bill Oram, wanted to keep Brook Lopez and Julius Randle around this season. The front office opted to bring in JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson instead. Here is how those signings panned out in comparison to Lopez and Randle.
|Player Splits||Points||Assists||Rebounds||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating|
Every free agent signing has resulted in a negative net rating despite the raw statistics being okay. Randle is having a career season offensively and Lopez is shooting 34.7 percent from 3-point range, showing that the two could have been a deadly frontcourt combination for LA. The Lakers wanted to preserve cap space this offseason for a max salary slot, but Lopez signed a one-year deal and Randle’s second year in his contract with the Pelicans is a team option. Los Angeles could’ve retained both players and still maintained salary flexibility in the offseason. This roster failure falls on the front office.
Trade deadline acquisitions Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala have failed to make the desired impact. Both players have regressed as shooters in their time with the Lakers. The Muscala trade cost Los Angeles a young, promising center in Ivica Zubac. Here are his numbers on the season:
|Ivica Zubac Splits||Points||Rebounds||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating|
|Up to Dec. 21 (6.8 min per game)||2.2||2.5||92.5||90.9|
|Dec. 21 – Feb. 5 (20.1 min per game)||11.7||6.1||102.1||108.0|
|Since Trade (19.6 min per game)||8.9||7.3||104.7||102.9|
Head Coach Luke Walton and his staff are not without blame, however. The team has played roughly .500 basketball with James in the lineup, something unheard of in the superstar’s recent NBA tenure. Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart regressed as shooters even with James providing additional opportunities. Ball saw his assist percentage crater as the offense reverted to James dominating possessions instead of the Lakers using multiple ball-handlers and playmakers like they had publicly discussed in the offseason.
Walton and his staff failed to instill a functional offense and mismanaged team rotations regularly. The Lakers have the 22nd-best offensive rating in the league, easily the worst ranking for any of James’ teams in his career.
It looks like Walton will end up being the “fall guy” given Buss’ comments about the trade deadline saga affecting the roster. She is either oblivious to Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka’s attempts to trade for Anthony Davis or simply trying to cover for the duo after the trade wasn’t made. Either way, it seems Buss is backing Johnson and Pelinka for at least another season.
There’s a scenario where Walton returns, but it’s extremely unlikely. The Lakers expected to be back in the playoffs this season and anything short of that would be considered unacceptable, no matter the circumstances. Walton may have been hailed as the “hometown hero” when he was hired, but Johnson and Pelinka didn’t oversee his hire. They’ll likely get the chance to select their own coach.
There are some positives for Los Angeles heading into the offseason. Hart has played through nagging knee injuries, but continues to exhibit the best effort of any players on the floor. Even if his shooting stalls out, he’s going to play hard. Kuzma continued to develop as a scorer and Ball’s value defensively came to the forefront when he got hurt. Ingram’s growth as the season progressed was perhaps the most positive development among LA’s young players.
Here’s his splits as the season progressed.
|Brandon Ingram Splits||Points Per Game||FG%||3-point%|
|Oct. 18 – Nov. 30 (18 games)||15.8||46.4||30.3|
|Dec. 1 – All-Star Break (28 games)||17.8||49.6||27.3|
|Post All-Star Break (6 games)||27.8||57.0||52.9|
Small sample size aside, Ingram’s development as an efficient scorer has steadily progressed throughout the season. His low percentages from deep aren’t necessarily concerning because he’s only attempted 2 per game for his NBA career. Ingram needs to develop an outside shot to fit better alongside James, but he’s shown enough progress to be optimistic about his potential going forward.
Another positive lies in the 2019 NBA draft. The Lakers are going to have their own draft pick and given their slew of injuries and James’ minutes restriction, there’s a chance Los Angeles slips further toward the top spot. The lottery has extremely high variance and the odds have shifted towards teams outside the top 3 positions with new rules. The Lakers are going to have the opportunity to select a strong prospect or use the pick as a trade chip for an established veteran.
There’s also the maximum salary slot, which will be created in part with Rondo, McGee and Stephenson’s one-year deals coming off the books. Johnson has repeatedly said he will step down if he fails to land a superstar free agent in back-to-back offseasons and the plan has always been to pair two stars together in Los Angeles.
The Lakers failed to woo Paul George back to his hometown last offseason, but the 2019 free agent class is loaded at the top and has enough depth for Johnson to make a big splash. If the Lakers strike out on Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving, second-tier free agents like Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker could be available. Even guys like Nikola Vucevic or Tobias Harris could provide a good contributor alongside James. DeMarcus Cousins is a wild card given his health, but he’s another big name for the Lakers to go after.
All situations point to these positives coming for a new head coach. Walton is not blameless, but he’s far from the only party involved in a disastrous 2018-19 season for the Lakers. The injury bug was the biggest culprit, but the front office constructed a roster ill-fit to handle injuries because of its two-summer plan.
Johnson and Pelinka need to nail their next coaching hire, the draft pick if they keep it, and free agency. Anything short of that will result in another supbar season in Los Angeles and more tension.