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Much has been made of the Los Angeles Lakers swoon that has LeBron James on track to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
With the team’s collapse has come a high-stakes blame game, with fingers pointed on the court, on the sideline and in the front office.
When looking to blame the players on the court, much of the ire has been directed at the team’s young core players — Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart, none of whom have more than three years of NBA experience.
After James suffered a groin injury on Christmas, the Lakers became very much dependent on those young players — and the results have looked much like what should be expected from a team without veteran leadership on the court. They’ve gone 10-20 and fallen out of the playoff race.
LeBron James points to Lakers’ youth — again
When searching for answers to the team’s struggles on Wednesday, James pointed to the team’s youth as a factor — not so much as a place of blame, but as a matter of fact.
“You have four guys in our top eight rotation that you have to really rely on, and it’s unfair to them to ask for so much when they’re in their second or third year,” James said. “We have Zo, Josh, Kuz and B.I. And we had Zu [Ivica Zubac] at the time.
“That’s like five out of our top nine guys that we rely on, and they’re in their first and second year. You can’t find one other team in our league right now that has to rely on that much every single night from their young guys that’s in their first or second year.”
James’ point rings true. The Lakers do have an inordinate amount of weight placed on their young players.
Maybe youth isn’t the issue
But looking to that fact doesn’t necessarily provide the answers to what’s actually ailing the Lakers. At times early in the season, the Lakers looked like a team that was playoff bound and may have had a chance to win a series.
Their struggles started when James missed time with his groin injury. But they’ve only exacerbated since his return as the Lakers have gone 3-8 in those games and James’ defensive deficiencies have made a nearly nightly appearance on NBA highlights.
Kuzma, Ingram have been good
And as the Lakers have struggled, their young players have often been among the few bright spots on the team. Kuzma has improved upon his surprising rookie season and looks like the most promising young player in the Lakers core.
Ingram has shown steady improvement this season, averaging 18.3 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists while hitting 49.7 percent of his field goals. The 21-year-old looks like he may start cashing in on some of the promise he arrived in the NBA with as the No. 2 pick in the draft.
Hart has been disappointing, regressing to a 41.2 percent shooter during his second season while threatening to fall out of the rotation. And Ball can’t do much while he’s shelved with an ankle injury.
But maybe it’s time to start looking elsewhere rather than the default of pointing to the Lakers’ youth.
Lakers bad with, without James
They’re bad with or without James on the court. He’s been a stat-stuffing machine since his return and is close to averaging a triple-double on the season with 27 points, 8.7 rebounds and 8 assists per game.
But his defense, as it has been through much of his 30s, continues to be a liability. And when he’s criticized for it, he gets defensive rather than show the leadership that a young team like the Lakers so desperately needs.
Rest of veterans leave much to be desired
And what about the rest of the roster? When the Lakers followed up the signing of James by inking JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley and Rajon Rondo to deals, NBA circles howled with laughter at the motley crew of career knuckleheads surrounding James.
It turns out those laughs were properly placed. Those aren’t the guys you want when trying to build a winner.
About those young players
But when searching for answers, James continues to look to the youth, even if doing so with a sympathetic tone.
“It’s unfair to those guys for us to continue to — we want them to learn, we want them to learn, we want them to learn — I want them to learn,” James said Wednesday. “But also we have to understand that they’re young as well and they’re going to make mistakes.
“You just try to limit the mistakes as much as possible. You look at all of the 16 teams right now, the best teams in our league right now, just look at the guys they rely on every single night to be able to come through for them. If they have a young guy it’s probably one or two of them. So it’s been tough on us. It’s been tough on us.”
Maybe it’s time for James to start looking elsewhere.
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