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?
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.
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.