The Los Angeles Lakers are 10-20 since beating the Golden State Warriors on Christmas, 4-10 since Anthony Davis requested a trade that drew half their roster into his orbit and 3-8 since LeBron James returned in earnest from injury. They trail the eighth-place San Antonio Spurs by five losses with 18 games left, and their odds of making the playoffs are projected at 2 percent.
In other words, arguably one of the two greatest players in NBA history on inarguably one of the two greatest franchises in league history is in danger of sitting out the spring in his first year with the team, and the resulting discussion is as you’d expect: irrational finger-pointing abound.
In an attempt to assign some rationale to a scenario that wasn’t all that unpredictable, we’ve come up with the Power Rankings Of Who’s To Blame For The Los Angeles Lakers Collapse.
7. “The Young Guys”
An internet search of “LeBron James” and “young guys” turns up a cache of stories about how vital the superstar considered the development of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart to the Lakers’ success this season. There was certainly logic behind that claim, but it was also as if he was preemptively laying blame at their feet if this campaign went off the rails.
The moment he arrived on a practice court in Los Angeles, James likened the team’s recent first-round picks to his children, suggesting it would take time to figure out their strengths and weaknesses, and he would even occasionally have to step aside to give them freedom to grow. He openly discussed the perils of striking a balance between deferring and doing too much.
More recently, James on one hand acknowledged how “tough” it was on the “young guys” to hear their names discussed repeatedly in media reports during the Anthony Davis trade request saga, and on another chastised them for falling prey to such “distractions” during a playoff push. He then publicly questioned whether their inexperience was the root cause of their failures.
“How do you know what’s at stake if you’ve never been there?” James asked after a loss to the Davis-less New Orleans Pelicans last month, repeating the question when pressed. “When you’ve never been there or know what it takes to actually shoot for something like that, it’s like you’re afraid to get uncomfortable. So you gotta be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
A funny thing about that night: Ingram and Kuzma looked comfortable, combining for 45 points. That game ignited a string of five defeats in six attempts, including losses to the tanking Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns, that sent the Lakers spiraling 4.5 games out of the Western Conference’s final playoff seed. In that stretch, Ingram and Kuzma have combined to average 44.3 points, 12.2 rebounds and 5.8 assists, offering further evidence that they have developed into solid complementary starters on a team headlined by an all-time great.
It is true that Lonzo Ball’s season has been derailed by knee and ankle injuries that sandwiched a disappointing 47-game stint, save for some inspired defense. Likewise, Hart has failed to deliver on preseason promise that pegged him as a stable 3-and-D wing option for James. Still, expectations were always too high for the “young guys,” and the fact that the Lakers have relied on production from half of them is a pretty reasonable outcome for a handful of unprovens.
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) March 3, 2019
6. Jeanie Buss
The Lakers owner described her brother Jim as “completely unfit” to run the team’s basketball operations, pushing him out in favor of another unproven team president (Magic Johnson) and general manager (Rob Pelinka). The first three springs of this regime has so far produced the same number of playoff appearances as the final three years of her brother’s reign: zero.
She is by all accounts a masterful business mind, but on the basketball side, her three most public contributions to the Lakers outside of giving the keys to Magic have been reportedly pushing the team to draft Ball over a host of other (better) options, backing Luke Walton amid reports of internal debate over his competency and just this past weekend invoking “fake news” to describe the very real and accurate reporting of the team’s highly publicized pursuit of Davis.
It remains to be seen if any of these decisions will yield productive results, but her power structure did put the Lakers in position to acquire James this past July and potentially another superstar free agent this coming summer. It’s hard to hold the owner’s feet too close to this fire.
5. Luke Walton
There is evidence that Walton is a capable coach, if not a good one. He steered a stacked Golden State Warriors team to a 39-4 start in 2015-16 during Steve Kerr’s absence, although there is some question as to how much steering that runaway freight train required. Walton also had the Lakers playing inspired ball in the final months of last season, eliciting steady improvement from the same core of untested players who have been so scrutinized this year.
Handed rosters that have served as placeholders for salary-cap spending sprees, Walton has constructed defenses that have statistically graded out around league average and looked catastrophically bad for long stretches. Given teams poorly suited for the game’s 3-point-heavy era, he has yet to design an offense that can compete against rosters full of sharper shooters.
Just as we have seen Walton aptly mentor two very different rosters — one full of stars and another stocked with 20-somethings — there is also mounting evidence that he is not successfully managing this mix of the same 20-somethings and a very particular superstar ...
4. LeBron James
James severely strained his groin on Christmas, just as the Lakers appeared to be figuring this out. They owned the fourth seed in the West approaching the season’s midway point, and the team proceeded to finish 6-11 in his prolonged absence, falling just outside the playoff picture. You could argue this is the cost of investing the future of a franchise in a 34-year-old with 55,000 minutes on his treads, but it’s hard to fault James for suffering the worst injury of his career.
Of greater concern is his performance since returning. While we do not know the extent to which he is still dealing with this injury, he has employed the same lax defensive strategy that was lauded last season on the Cleveland Cavaliers as “the perfected art of resting while playing.” Recent games are replete with examples of James not exerting effort on defensive possessions.
Kuzma "helping" LeBron on defense due to some confusion pic.twitter.com/JVTE1cTdsh
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) March 5, 2019
LeBron not even attempting to look like he’s playing defense, then throwing his hands up at his teammates 🤔 pic.twitter.com/vLKWO0CyLk
— Full Court Prez (@fullcourtprez) February 26, 2019
This one is easily my favorite LMAOOOO
— gianni (@theepicbronie) February 26, 2019
Since the start of December, James is also shooting well below league average on six 3-point attempts per game. His free-throw percentage is the worst of his career, including a host of misses in crunch time of close games. His traditional statistics since returning from injury — 26.2 points, 10.5 assists and 9.6 rebounds per game — speak for themselves, but so does this: The Lakers are allowing 117.5 points per 100 possessions in the 3-8 stretch that has all but sealed their lottery fate, almost 10 points worse than their defense in James’ injury absence.
We also can’t ignore James’ hand in signing off on a handful of odd veteran free-agent signings and the attempted coup for Davis, both of which have proven catastrophic. We’ll get to those.
3. The Injury Bug
After the Lakers suffered their third defeat in as many games, losing to the crosstown rival Clippers on Monday night, James lamented to reporters, “The injuries are taking a toll on us. I haven’t been a part of a season with this many injuries to all of our key guys. Big, big key guys. That’s just the way this season has been. … We prided ourselves on our depth at the start of the season, but obviously our depth has dwindled over the course of the last few weeks.”
It is true that the Lakers have lost key man hours to a host of important players, starting with James (18 games) and including extended absences for Ball (17 games), Ingram (12 games) and Rajon Rondo (34 games). It is impossible to ignore the fact that the Lakers could very well be in playoff position had James not missed nearly a quarter of the season due to injury.
At the same rate, the Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets have survived significant injuries to key contributors and still managed to work their way into solid playoff footing. We should also point out that LeBron’s teams have survived multiple injuries to his many superstar teammates in years past. There is no doubt the Lakers’ issues go well beyond a few injuries and discomfort.
2. Anthony Davis
We could put Rich Paul’s name here, too. James’ close confidante and agent orchestrated Davis’ public trade request in the weeks prior to the February deadline, clearly trying to pair his two highest-profile clients in Los Angeles. James surely had some say in the discussion, too.
Yet, Davis is his own man, and ultimately the decision to alienate New Orleans falls on him. In the short term, that choice proved disastrous for both the Pelicans and his host of suitors. Chief among them was the Lakers, who reportedly offered every one of their “young guys” in return.
The derisive impact on those whose names were dangled in the deal and ultimately remained on the roster is clear to anyone watching the Lakers devolve in recent weeks. The pursuit of Davis was “weighing heavily” on them, according to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, and it did not help that James and the team’s brass were so open about their desire to discard half the roster.
As one NBA executive told Bleacher Report, James “killed their chemistry. He shouldn’t have been so public about it. Even during the All-Star draft, he laughed about [wanting Davis].”
In a strange twist of fate, the Lakers’ failed deadline deal for Davis has fractured the roster so badly that it may ultimately benefit their pursuit of him this summer. They are within a half-game of top-10 draft lottery positioning, within striking distance of 20 percent odds at a top-four pick.
1. Magic Johnson
To the best of my knowledge, there has been no discussion of the Lakers parting ways with Johnson, and his acquisition of James almost assures him of remaining as the franchise’s chief recruiter for the remainder of the superstar’s four-year contract. How much credit he deserves for landing a player who seemed intent on living in Los Angeles regardless is up for debate.
Beyond acquiring James, Johnson’s tenure as team president thus far has been an abject failure. How disastrous you believe it is for the Lakers to miss the playoffs in year one with a player coming off eight straight Finals trips probably correlates to how much you equate “beyond acquiring James” with the old saying, “Other than that, how’d you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”
Here are the lowlights of his tenure:
— Trading 2018 Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams for the pick that became Hart.
— Attaching future Eastern Conference All-Star D’Angelo Russell to Timozey Mozgov’s contract in a cap-clearing move that returned the pick that became Kuzma from the Brooklyn Nets.
— Signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to consecutive eight-figure deals.
— Drafting Lonzo Ball over Jayson Tatum.
— Lowballing the San Antonio Spurs in the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes.
— Tampering with Paul George, and then failing to secure a free-agency meeting with him.
— Surrounding James with Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley in a series of moves that were widely mocked in their immediate aftermath.
— Trading promising young center Ivica Zubac, who he had just touted in trade talks with New Orleans, for Mike Muscala’s expiring contract in a deal that made little to no sense.
This may all be remedied if the Lakers successfully pair James with Davis and one of the many superstar free agents this summer, but there has been little indication that Leonard, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson or Jimmy Butler want to play with James in Los Angeles. In fact, quite the opposite, and missing the playoffs this season isn’t doing recruitment any favors.
Other than that, things are going great for the Lakers.
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