There was so much promise heading into the season for the Los Angeles Lakers. Signing the free agent of all free agents in LeBron James was supposed to spark the kindling that is the young Lakers core. Magic Johnson, Lakers’ president of basketball operations, even said himself that this season they are “back”, but next season they are “back-back”. Fans in Los Angeles found themselves celebrating their newest superstar. While many remained skeptical about just how good this team could be, many tagged the Lakers as a legitimate threat out West under the Golden State Warriors.
So, now with 19 games remaining in the season and the Lakers sitting three games under .500 and 4.5 games out of the final seed of the playoffs, what went wrong?
Many can argue that the troubles in Los Angeles began shortly after the LeBron James signing. Rather than signing perimeter shooters, something that James was accustomed to in previous years, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka had the vision of signing ball-handlers. Their thought was to ease the burden of running an offense on the 34-year-old. Maginka quickly filled out their roster with what many call the “Meme Team”, consisting of Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, and JaVale McGee. The Lakers were one of the worst perimeter shooting teams in the league the previous season and the Lakers’ brass did nothing to improve it.
The Lakers began the season slow, something many expected with a dramatically different team. LeBron James has always needed some time to adjust to a new team. After winning only two of their first seven games to start the season, they turned it around by winning nine of their next eleven games, pulling them back into the playoff picture. The purple and gold were beginning to look like one of the scariest teams in the league.
Potentially their highest point of the season was on Christmas Day, where the Lakers routed the defending champion Warriors in Oakland. The league began to wonder if this could be a sign of things to come. Unfortunately, the best game of the season also turned into their worst-case scenario when LeBron was forced to exit the game with a strained groin. The rest of the Lakers were able to survive a late push by the Warriors, which may be the last great memory from an otherwise tumultuous season.
LeBron James’ injury, which at first glance did not appear serious, caused him to miss 18 games. The team began to sink like a rock during that time as they lost 12 of those 18 games. They went from the fourth seed prior to James’ injury to ninth when he returned. Even after LeBron’s eventual return, the King still did not appear to be at full strength. He lacked much of the speed and force that makes him so great. LeBron needed time to ramp up his efforts, something the Lakers could not afford to do.
LeBron James was not the only key player to suffer an injury this season. Lakers’ starting point guard Lonzo Ball suffered a Grade 3 ankle sprain which has caused him to miss 16 games and counting. The loss of Lonzo was much worse than outsiders thought. Ball was playing the best basketball of his young career prior to the injury. He was by far the team’s best facilitator and defender. When Lonzo Ball went down, the Lakers had a top ten defense in the league. Since the injury, they have become one of the worst.
To make matters worse, the supporting cast outside of Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma has not provided the team with much help. Rajon Rondo has not been great offensively and even worse defensively. JaVale McGee was never able to find his success following his time missed due to pneumonia. Things did not get any better when reports leaked that the Lakers had offered everybody and the kitchen sink to the New Orleans Pelicans for Anthony Davis, which left an unsettling feeling amongst the locker room. The clock had begun to strike midnight on the rest of the roster that Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka signed during the offseason.
Lakers’ head coach Luke Walton finds himself in a very tough spot. The team had performed so well prior to LeBron’s injury, but the effort level had dropped off the side of a cliff since. At many times the team appeared not to care. They were not communicating on either side of the floor and there was an obvious showing of animosity in the locker room. Not to mention, with only a few players on the roster contributing successful minutes, Luke has had struggles developing consistent rotations. When James, Ingram, and Kuzma exit the game, the bench unit has a tendency to squander leads or fall behind due to their lack of shooting and scoring. Following another embarrassing loss to a bottom-dwelling team against the Phoenix Suns on Saturday, Luke Walton’s job security may be in major jeopardy.
After Saturday’s loss in Phoenix, those around the league are beginning to sense the realization that LeBron James, a guy that has been in eight straight NBA Finals and deemed by most the best basketball player in the world, is likely to miss the playoffs for the first time since his rookie year. As we get closer to the end of the season we will see if this Lakers team has any fight left in the tank, or if they will close up shop early. How will Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka respond following a disappointing season? Will they learn from their mistakes when it comes to roster construction? Will they be successful in luring a second max free agent? As is only fitting in Hollywood, the plot surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers has thickened.
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