As the Los Angeles Lakers limped into the All-Star break, there was no use in sugarcoating reality: Just about everything that realistically could go wrong had gone wrong in the weeks prior.
LeBron James had suffered the lengthiest injury of his career, which kept him out five and a half weeks. The team’s young players — vitally important to keep the club afloat in James’s absence — had undoubtedly heard the swirling rumors about the Lakers’ willingness to part ways with everyone except James if it meant acquiring superstar Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans. Yet once it became clear that a Davis deal wasn’t happening, it became easier to see the biggest problem: Los Angeles, which lost four of five heading into the break, wasn’t finding ways to win and their chances of making the playoffs were edging from likely to unlikely. Heading into All-Star weekend, they stood at 40 percent.
There was still plenty of belief in the Lakers, though, if only because of James, and his legendary switch-flipping ability that we’d seen so many times over the past few years. “It’s been activated,” James said late last month of his playoff-level intensity.
But fast-forward to now, and all belief has ceased to exist. With Tuesday’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, James and the Lakers have now dropped nine of their last 12 games, with their playoff probability dropping to a microscopic 2 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s projection model. As such, it’s almost certain that the banner franchise will extend its playoff drought to a sixth year (longest in team history), while James will fail to make the postseason for the first time since 2005.
How did things go off the rails so quickly and disastrously in James’s first season out West?
James’s injury — a possibility that should’ve been taken more seriously all along, given his age and the mileage on his tires — obviously was a killer. The Lakers were tied for fourth place at 19-14 on Christmas (when James was sidelined with the groin strain), then went just 6-11 without him.
Many other factors came into play, though.
The once-solid defense vanished.
Los Angeles ranked eighth in defensive efficiency as it closed out the month of January. That defense routinely gave the Lakers a fighting chance most nights even as the team’s offense was still trying to develop a rhythm with James. But the defense has been nonexistent since the start of February, a span in which the Lakers have ranked dead last on that end of the floor.
Lonzo Ball’s absence has been a key factor here. He ranks sixth among point guards in ESPN’s defensive real-plus minus, while veteran Rajon Rondo, who has played most of Ball’s missing minutes, ranks No. 62 in the same metric. The team has also suffered as Tyson Chandler — who gave the Lakers a boost when he first signed with them — hasn’t been able to play nearly as much or as effectively because of a neck injury.
But let’s be honest: Some of this boils down to sheer effort at times. LA ranked 11th at securing loose balls through the end of January, but since February sits just 21st in the same category. And while LeBron has put up numbers since his return, he’s been part of the problem on D, where he often looks flat-out disinterested in closing out or making rotations.
The Lakers have had a ton of success on defense when they’re willing to work. They rank as the stingiest team in the NBA, allowing just 0.93 points per possession when they close out on jump-shooters, according to data from Second Spectrum. The effort to do so just hasn’t been consistent enough.
They didn’t take advantage of the NBA’s worst teams.
The decreased hustle has doomed the Lakers lately in games against inferior competition where victories should have come easy. In the past month alone, they’ve lost to Atlanta, the Pelicans without Anthony Davis, Memphis and Phoenix. (This season, they’ve been beaten by five of the six NBA clubs that own sub-.400 records. The Chicago Bulls are the lone exception.)
Los Angeles currently sports a mediocre 16-13 record against teams under .500, a considerable contrast from James’s last eight seasons in Cleveland and Miami.
|Record against teams under .500|
|2018||Los Angeles Lakers*||16-13||55.1|
Winning some of those games might not have gotten the Lakers into the playoffs. But losing them makes it a little harder to argue that it was the steeper competition in the Western Conference that stopped James from reaching the playoffs.
It was the veterans who failed down the stretch.
It was fair to criticize the youngsters for awhile. Forwards Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram and guards Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart didn’t play particularly well early on and really struggled during LeBron’s absence, perhaps making it even more difficult to convince the Pelicans to make a deal with the Lakers.
But it’s hard to pin too much of this on Ball, who’s been out with an injury. Kuzma hasn’t shot well from deep this year at all, but he’s still been a decent enough scorer. Ingram has played the best basketball of his life lately. The only young player who’s really struggled is Hart, whose perimeter shooting has fallen off a cliff since the turn of the new year. (And even he’s played better the past few games.)
If anything, a couple of the veterans who were brought in this summer have been to blame. Even after his 24-point showing Monday, Rondo has taken more shots than he has points over the past month and a half. And Lance Stephenson, when he’s been able to play, has been even worse. The forward has shot just under 27 percent in the last two and a half weeks of February.
This roster never made sense.
Some were bold enough early on to suggest that the Lakers didn’t have a playoff roster. An abundant belief in LeBron, who’d been to eight consecutive NBA Finals, undoubtedly masked the need for more reinforcements. But Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka now have to shoulder the blame for not having a good enough contingency plan in place for if and when James got hurt.
Getting LeBron was fantastic — a coup of epic proportions. But entering the season without a bonafide second star to pair with James — who at 34 may be in perhaps the last true season of his prime, even — was tempting fate. Having that second fiddle could’ve given the club enough to keep its head above water during LeBron’s absence. Assuming that player would have been acquired before the season, at the expense of some of the Lakers’ young talent, it’s a safe bet that the Davis speculation that distracted the team midseason wouldn’t have existed.
But setting aside the talk of what it would’ve meant to have a second star, what if Johnson and Pelinka had simply built the roster in the image of James’s former teams? Instead of getting players who struggle to shoot, like Rondo and Stephenson, why not hold onto center Brook Lopez, who damn-near spaces the floor more on his own than the team’s free-agent acquisitions combined?
It almost seems like the Lakers treated much of this season like an experiment. They got a chance to see how the youngsters looked alongside LeBron. They saw how Luke Walton handled the spotlight of coaching James and his new teammates.1 And they saw — in very awkward, hardball fashion — that other clubs won’t just hand them stars to help build them into a superteam.
But hopefully, above all else, they learned that merely having James on the roster isn’t enough to guarantee success. And that only figures to become more and more true as he gets older.