Why the Lakers failed

With LeBron and the Lakers faltering, will this be the first postseason without the King in over a decade?

Why the Lakers failed

Over the past 15 years, LeBron James has amassed one of the most impressive postseason résumés in NBA history: nine finals appearances, three championships, three finals MVP awards, and 13 consecutive playoff seasons. Now, in his 16th season in the NBA and his first for the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron is at a crossroads.

Still arguably the best player in the league, the lofty expectations that followed him to LA have not been met, and for the first time since 2005, a LeBron-led team will not appear in the playoffs.

On March 22, the Lakers’ 2018–2019 season came to a bruising end. With a 111–106 loss to the Brooklyn Nets — who were led by D’Angelo Russell, a former Laker lottery pick who was traded away and has since become an All-Star — the Lakers were officially denied a chance at the playoffs.

During the post-game conference, LeBron said, “It’s been a tough season for all of us,” voicing his dismay over how the season had transpired. “It’s not what we signed up for.”

More specifically, this is not what LeBron had signed up for. After leaving a conference where his teams went to eight consecutive finals, the man — who, when is all said and done, could be considered the greatest player to ever live — was unable to lead his team to a top-eight finish in the West. A season that began with high hopes has now reached an unthinkable conclusion, and the question remains: what went wrong?

Injuries

First and foremost, the Lakers would not be in this position if LeBron had stayed healthy. Having never suffered a major injury in his professional career, LeBron’s Christmas Day groin injury during a game against the Golden State Warriors was completely unexpected and amounted to the single longest absence of his career. Up to that point, the Lakers had been in a comfortable position for playoffs at 21–14, but his departure resulted in a 6–11 tailspin that almost pulled them from the running.

This was exacerbated by the continued absence of Lonzo Ball, an ultra-long point guard who both relieved some of LeBron’s playmaking burden, and provided valuable defensive strengths for a mediocre defensive team. Scariest of all, Brandon Ingram, who had been in the midst of a late-season surge, had his season cut short in early March by deep venous thrombosis (DVT), a condition caused by the formation of blood clots in his right arm.

Though the following procedure was successful, DVT has life-altering repercussions. In serious cases, this condition can lead to a pulmonary embolism, which can fatally clot arteries in the lungs and can lead to early retirement. The most famous case of this was with former Miami Heat power forward Chris Bosh. Add in the multiple injuries to veteran backup Rajon Rondo, and the Lakers were forced to spend much of their season without depth at the playmaking positions.

A lacklustre supporting cast

Even without his career-threatening injury, Ingram’s stagnation has been one of the biggest disappointments this year. After flashes during his first two seasons in the NBA, the former second-overall pick was expected to finally live up to the hype.

Unfortunately, the fit with LeBron has been awkward. Both players thrive with the ball in their hands, and Ingram has not proven to be a good enough shooter — 33 per cent from the three on a minuscule 1.8 attempts per game — to be an off-ball threat. LeBron’s absence provided Ingram with an opportunity to prove his worth, but his inability to break out, alongside the team’s lacklustre record during that time, did not inspire confidence.

After LeBron returned, but before DVT ended his season, Ingram started to improve. But while hope that he will become a top-end talent remains, there’s no guarantee that he’ll reach stardom or that his ascent will come before LeBron’s decline. The rest of the Lakers’ young core, including Ball, Josh Hart, and Kyle Kuzma, have shown varying signs of improvement, but none have progressed to the point where they can be considered stars; an aging LeBron cannot afford to be patient.

Among the older NBA players, the veterans that LA signed for one-year deals during the offseason have ranged from Rondo, who is decently valuable, to Michael Beasley, who was an unmitigated disaster and was recently bought out by the Chinese Basketball Association.

Young coach Luke Walton has had to manage this ill-fitting roster all year, and make the messy transition from overseeing a young team on the rise to working with a highly unlikely contender.

The inability of the young players to rise to their potential, coupled with the general mediocrity of the offseason signings, has left Walton with a disgruntled star and a team that does not fit around him.

Front office failures

The questionable free agent signings were not the only black marks for General Manager Rob Pelinka and President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson, as they also dealt with the fallout of the failed trade for Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans.

The superstar big man had requested a trade shortly before the February 7 trade deadline. Soon after this announcement, news leaked that the Lakers were prepared to offer the Pelicans a substantial deal involving young assets, many one-year veterans, and a litany of draft picks. However, the deal was not accepted, and the deadline passed with Davis remaining a Pelican.

This was a total fiasco, as the Lakers missed their chance to trade for a top-five NBA talent. According to ESPN, the trade rumours had also been “weighing heavily” on the young players, which has not boded well for team chemistry.

This dysfunction has been par for the course in the Johnson-Pelinka era. Other than their acquisition of LeBron, the rest of their moves, including successful attempts to trade away young talent — the 2017 Russell trade and this year’s trade of promising centre Ivica Zubac to the Clippers at the trade deadline, to name a few — have had abysmal results.

With a front office that has shown no indication that they know what they’re doing, LeBron may find that the team signing him on was the only smart decision that the Lakers have made.  

The King’s twilight

Lastly, there’s LeBron himself, a player so richly deserving of praise that criticizing him can feel downright blasphemous. In the games he has played, LeBron has posted his usual impressive stat lines and had enough highlights to suggest that he is still the sport’s premiere star, but his age may finally be starting to catch up with him.

The eye test has shown that he is ambivalent on defense, has looked sluggish at times, and has perhaps had trouble adjusting to the tough workloads that Western Conference teams must face on a night-to-night basis.

On top of this, his groin injury evidences that durability fades with age, and that even LeBron is not a superhuman. This is to be expected for a 34-year-old who has played an ungodly number of minutes in his career, but also speaks to the fact that Father Time is undefeated. On top of these admittedly small signs that his play has slipped, LeBron’s off-court activities have also raised eyebrows. An important wrinkle in the aborted Pelicans trade is the fact that Davis is signed to the Klutch Sports Group, an agency run by Rich Paul, who is one of LeBron’s oldest friends. Although LeBron has no financial stake in the company, he is Klutch’s premiere client, and from the outside, this trade request looked like a calculated move by LeBron’s camp to force out his young teammates in exchange for proven talent.

Moreover, LeBron has been involved in a myriad of entertainment ventures this season, from being announced as the star for the long-awaited Space Jam sequel, to providing A&R guidance during the recording of rapper 2Chainz’ new album.

Taking advantage of the opportunities that LA has to offer is understandable, but it runs counter to the criticisms that he has levelled against his teammates on occasion. This makes comments, such as the one following a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies that “if you’re still allowing distractions to affect the way you play, then this is the wrong franchise to be a part of,” at best ring hollow and at worst seem drenched in hypocrisy. LeBron is unquestionably the engine that drives the Lakers, but at this point in his career, it is reasonable to wonder how his age and priorities affect his team’s chances as an automatic contender.

The future

With this season more or less over, sights have to be set on the upcoming free agency and 2019–2020 season, as building a team worthy enough to be a playoff contender may be challenging once again. This year’s free agent crop is bountiful, with proven stars like Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. However, these players have shown no indication that they wish to be LeBron’s sidekick.

Durant has been linked to the New York Knicks for much of the season, and his comments about how hard it must be to play with LeBron make it unlikely that he would want to find out for himself. Leonard — a California native — has been linked to LA’s other basketball team ahead of his free agency; the Clippers have been courting him from the moment he was traded to the Toronto Raptors.

Beyond these proven superstars — along with playoff-tested veterans, like Warrior Klay Thompson who looks like he’ll re-sign, and former LeBron teammate Kyrie Irving, who has also been linked to the Knicks — the talent starts to thin.

Players like Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, and Tobias Harris may push the Lakers into the playoffs, but they aren’t good enough to forge a true contender, especially if they command a maximum salary on the open market. The prospect of a Davis trade still looms, but with teams like the Boston Celtics now able to make enticing offers and the Lakers’ young talent in jeopardy, this trade seems less likely than it did in February.

Of course, not all hope is lost.

Natural progression could bolster the Lakers’ young core, LeBron could bounce back from his injury with a renewed sense of purpose, and the Lakers could land a marquee free agent to alter their competitive ceiling. What is troublesome is that all three things may need to happen for the Lakers to shake off the losing mentality they now have, or else next year could turn into another lost season for LeBron in Los Angeles.

On March 6, LeBron passed Michael Jordan to become the fourth-leading scorer in NBA history. The next day, a report emerged that LeBron would be under a minutes restriction for the remainder of the season, a move that showed that the Lakers had given up on making the playoffs after dropping to 30–35, which had them 6.5 games behind the eighth seed at the time.

These two events demonstrate the tension that has plagued the Lakers this entire season. Even as Lebron continues to break records and showcase his waning yet undeniable brilliance — especially as he passes his childhood idol and challenger for the ‘greatest of all time’ title in scoring — the Lakers have continued to lose, unable to coexist with a player whose mere presence irrevocably alters every aspect of whatever franchise he joins.

No one person is to blame for the Lakers flaming out, but no one is innocent either. Even if the main reason that the Lakers will miss the playoffs is because of LeBron’s injury, the signs that they were not a true contender this year have persisted throughout the season. The front office failed to build a complementary team around LeBron, despite having over a decade’s worth of evidence in Miami and Cleveland about what works around him. The young players have not distinguished themselves enough to justify LeBron moving to a tougher conference, and the failed Davis trade shows that neither the Pelicans nor the Lakers think highly of them.

Then there’s LeBron, the bellwether for NBA excellence from almost the moment he entered the league. Despite his missteps, this season will not alter his legacy, and he could retire tomorrow knowing that he has accomplished more in his career than almost anyone in NBA history.

Still, this is not a moment for re-evaluation. It is a moment for reflection. The 2010s have been defined by LeBron’s playoff performances, whether in his valiant efforts before losses or his miraculous moments of victory. This postseason will have none of that, and even if the Lakers regroup next year and prove to be a formidable team, this season ends the notion that having the King is a playoff guarantee.

The importance of athletes giving back

LeBron James’ I Promise School speaks to the current era of athletic star power

The importance of athletes giving back

In late July, NBA superstar LeBron James made international headlines after opening his I Promise School in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. The public elementary school, created to assist at-risk youth, offers free tuition, college funding for all students who graduate, an extended school year to keep children engaged in their schoolwork, and a food pantry for parents, as well as many other resources for students and families — all free of cost.

LeBron’s initiative comes in the wake of Fox News reporter Laura Ingraham’s comment earlier this year that LeBron and fellow NBA superstar Kevin Durant should stay away from political commentary and social issues, and “shut up and dribble.”

Ingraham received widespread criticism over the remark, as sports fans, politicians, and media figures reaffirmed the widely held position that athletes have the right to speak up on issues they see as important and to use their wealth and stature to give back to communities in need. Since the incident, examples of social awareness and altruism in sports have gained much more attention.

LeBron’s peer, WNBA star Tina Charles, is one of these examples. For the third season in a row, New York Liberty’s centre has donated her entire salary to her own organization, which is aimed at combating sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), the number one cause of death in the United States. Charles’ efforts have made external defibrillators accessible for thousands more people, thus decreasing the chance of death due to SCA from 90 per cent to 10 per cent.

Canadian Olympic icon Clara Hughes, the only Olympian in history to win multiple medals at both the Winter and Summer games, has been working for years to help end the stigma around mental illness. As the national spokesperson for Bell Let’s Talk, Hughes has assisted in bringing over $7 million to the cause of eliminating the stigma around mental health in Canadian communities.

Fellow Canadian and NHL winger Jordin Tootoo, the first person of Inuit background to play in the NHL, has created anti-bullying programs for Indigenous youth and communities through the Team Tootoo Fund. These programs also include raising awareness for suicide prevention and addiction in Indigenous communities. With Inuit suicide rates 11 times higher than the national average, the goal of the foundation is to provide Indigenous communities with proper mental health services, and to “get in front of kids about suicide prevention and let them know there are people who care.”

During the FIFA World Cup earlier this summer, 19-year-old French phenom Kylian Mbappé gained international attention after donating his entire national team earnings to Premiers de Cordée, a charity seeking to provide greater access to sports for children with disabilities.

Spanish professional soccer player Juan Mata also created the Common Goal initiative, which encourages players to donate a minimum of one per cent of their salary to charity. The initiative is in response to skyrocketing transfer fees in the soccer world, with the goal of introducing “social responsibility” to soccer by setting a realistic humanitarian goal that all players would be willing to participate in.

The goal is a minimum requirement that should be adopted by athletes in all sports, not just in soccer. Sports fans should not only celebrate social responsibility taken by athletes, but should encourage athletes to speak out on social issues and set an expectation for all professional athletes to make a commitment to humanitarianism.

Athletes serve as role models for entire cities and nations, and these tremendous stories of altruism could go far beyond sports by serving as inspirations for thousands of others to try and do something good for humanity.

LeBron James in Hollywood

What LeBron’s move to LA means for the rest of the NBA

LeBron James in Hollywood

Eight years ago, the basketball world watched LeBron James announce that he was taking his talents to South Beach to team up with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. The Decision, a 75-minute television special dedicated to LeBron’s free agency decision, was met with resentment by NBA fans across the world.

LeBron became the NBA’s biggest supervillain overnight. He was vilified by Ohioans and basketball fans alike, described as betraying his home state by forming a “superteam” in Miami to pursue easy championships.

Eight years later, LeBron is departing from the Cleveland Cavaliers for the second time to join the Los Angeles Lakers. This time around, the move lacks the fireworks and theatrics that accompanied The Decision, with the official announcement coming via a subtle press release from his agency.

Despite the difference in rollout, the move still begs the question: what does this mean for LeBron’s legacy?

Now changing teams for the third time since being drafted to the Cavaliers, LeBron’s move to Los Angeles is much different than his first departure.

Since returning home, LeBron has brought Cleveland four Eastern Conference banners and a championship after defeating the 73-9 Golden State Warriors. This past season, he extended his NBA Finals streak to eight consecutive seasons, after dragging another lackluster Cavaliers squad past the Eastern Conference Finals.

His performance over the last four years has been unparalleled, which makes it difficult to be critical of LeBron for leaving. Unlike before his first departure, it is clear that LeBron has done everything in his power to bring basketball success to the city of Cleveland. Moreover, critics certainly cannot argue that he’s taking the easy way out by joining the Lakers.

LeBron’s move takes him to the Western Conference (West), a conference with arguably greater talent and better teams than the Eastern Conference (East). In the West, LeBron will have much more difficulty navigating his way to the finals with juggernauts like the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets standing in the way.

It seems clear that the safe move for LeBron’s legacy would have been to stay in the East, dominate the playoffs year after year, and extend his unprecedented Finals streak.

This would have kept LeBron fans’ favourite narrative alive: LeBron continues to drag bad teams to the Finals by virtue of his individual greatness, only to lose to the ‘unfair’ Warriors who have combined their forces to defeat him because they are unable to do so by themselves.

On top of this, LeBron is not joining a superteam like when he left for Miami, or as many of his peers have opted to do in the past few seasons.

LeBron joins a Lakers team with awkward pieces, from young and inexperienced players still developing into their full potential, to three ball-dominant guards lacking strong shooting abilities in Lonzo Ball, Lance Stephenson, and Rondo players that will hinder LeBron from operating in his preferred point-forward role on the floor. Making things even more challenging for LeBron is that the defending champion Warriors have signed Demarcus Cousins for the coming season.

Arguably the best center in the league, Cousins provides the Warriors with a perfect remedy for their Achilles’ heel: offensive rebounding. With this acquisition, it seems like the chances of any team defeating the Warriors, let alone this newly assembled Lakers squad, are virtually non-existent.

The move to the Lakers seriously threatens LeBron’s legacy. NBA fans are notoriously fickle, so it seems certain that if the Lakers fail to acquire new talent and give LeBron some quality teammates to work with, his career will not be defined by his early success, but rather by his failure to excel in the face of adversity.

The NBA’s competitive balance conundrum

Can anyone beat the Golden State Warriors?

The NBA’s competitive balance conundrum

After the Golden State Warriors won their second consecutive NBA title against the Cleveland Cavaliers — their third title in four years — many NBA fans are growing restless with the lack of parity in the league.

In the past two seasons, the Warriors have lost once in the NBA Finals, which is especially concerning given that the Finals are usually set up to be the most competitive matchup in the playoffs.

One of the main critiques of these ‘superteams’ is that they have offset the competitive balance the league once had, but I’m not quite sold on the idea that superteams offsetting the competition is a recent development. If you take a look at the history of the NBA, there has never been much parity.

The NBA was built on dynasties. In the ‘60s, you had the Boston Celtics winning nine times; in the ‘80s, the Los Angeles Lakers won five times and the Celtics three; in the ‘90s, the Chicago Bulls won six times; and from 2000–2015, you had the Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, and Miami Heat winning 12 of 15 championships.

There has never been any distinguishable movement in terms of who gets to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season. This is not a new problem for the league, and trying to eliminate superteams won’t solve it.

In an effort to deter player movement like the league is experiencing now, the NBA created a designated veteran contract — in other words, an incentive for players to re-sign with their team, and which allows them to sign a much larger contract.

So far, the top two teams in the NBA, the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors, have each managed to sign a superstar — Chris Paul and Kevin Durant, respectively. They have decided to forego the designated veteran contract, along with the extra millions that would go along with it, and instead compete for the championship.

The largest competitive problem the league has right now is not superteams: it’s that the majority of NBA talent is stacked in the Western Conference. With LeBron James now moving out west to the Lakers, arguably, the top 10 players in the league are located in the same conference. The disparity in competition between the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference is a serious problem.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has announced that he will look into a reformed playoff structure to ensure the two best teams meet in the NBA Finals. The proposed new structure would lead to having the top 16 teams overall make the playoffs, regardless of which conference they came from.

In other words, the exciting seven-game series that the Rockets and the Warriors had this year could have been for the NBA championship, instead of the lackluster four-game series with the Cavaliers.

It’s very clear that the top teams in the NBA are on a different level than the rest of the league. So where does that leave teams who are on the outside looking in, like the Toronto Raptors?

As it turns out, the Raptors are in a tough spot. To compete in this league, they’re going to have to make bold moves, and that can come from big free agent signings or blockbuster trades. With LeBron moving to the west, the door seems to have opened for the Raptors once more. Under the tutelage of their new head coach, Nick Nurse, the Raptors are looking to retool, which may put them among the top few teams in the east ready to compete for a spot in the finals.

The signing of DeMarcus Cousins to the Warriors sent the league into a frenzy, with many coming to the conclusion that the NBA season is already over, and while that may be true, his signing itself isn’t simply the problem.

As fans, we tend to judge star players’ free agency decisions based off of what seem to be their reasons for signing. It’s either that they’ve signed for the money, in which case we criticize them for choosing money over championship rings, or that they’ve signed with a major contender, and we accuse them of taking the easy way out.

Fans can’t have it both ways. If players are judged solely on NBA championships, we can’t blame them for joining the top contenders.

The NBA is still about competition, and the Warriors are simply competing at a higher level than everyone else. After they lost the NBA Finals in 2015, the team replaced Harrison Barnes with Durant. They faced elimination twice this past postseason against the Rockets and have added Cousins, a perennial All-Star. The Warriors have refused to stay complacent, and other teams should follow suit.

Despite all the criticism the league is facing, ratings are the highest they’ve ever been, with fans tuning in hoping to see Goliath fall. The NBA has always been about dynasties, and true parity has never existed. As the saying goes, don’t hate the player, hate the game.