It started with a bang.
LeBron James, looking bouncy and refreshed in the Los Angeles Lakers' classic gold uniform, sprung to steal an inbounds pass, then coasted down the floor in Portland to slam home his first bucket as a Laker only minutes into the season opener. Less than 20 seconds later, James sliced through the Trail Blazers’ defense before trying to rip the rim off with another ferocious dunk.
It ends, though, with a whimper.
Moments after James slipped and turned the ball over on a crunch-time possession, the Lakers were mathematically eliminated from postseason contention with a home loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Friday, three weeks from the end of a regular season that was supposed to begin restoring the franchise's prestige.
When James announced his intention to join the Lakers on July 1, team president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka were given the best head start any executive could ask for. Once you have James, the only task is not to screw it up. Build even the most basic, functional basketball team around the greatest player of his generation - perhaps the greatest of all time - and James will do the rest.
But screw it up they did, as did the rest of the cast, including James himself, in a disappointing season that can be classified a top-to-bottom organizational failure.
Johnson and Pelinka began taking a flamethrower to the 2018-19 Lakers almost immediately after landing James. Rather than prioritize shooting, the Lakers signed veteran ball-handlers with wonky jumpers, eschewing the tried and true method of optimizing James on the offensive end to satisfy Johnson's misguided observations from last spring's playoffs.
They also allowed good players to leave and signed players who seemed unlikely to fit, on or off the court. Brook Lopez and Julius Randle? Gone. Who needs them? Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, and JaVale McGee? Come on down to join the circus.
Johnson and Pelinka wanted us to believe they were zigging while the rest of the league zagged - that a plethora of playmaking around James was some sort of market inefficiency. In the end, they only outsmarted themselves, trapping the Lakers in an unfinished maze with no way out.
They tried to remedy some of these flaws with a short-sighted deadline-day trade that sent promising young center Ivica Zubac down the hall to the Clippers, in exchange for stretch-big Mike Muscala, before acquiring Reggie Bullock in a deal that sent a future second-round pick to Detroit. Zubac has continued to blossom with the Clippers. Muscala and Bullock have combined to shoot 29 percent from deep for the Lakers, who have gone 4-14 since the deals.
Predictably, the Lakers entered Friday's game 29th in 3-point shooting and 22nd in offensive efficiency.
"The game has changed, so it was obviously a concern," Rondo said last week of the lack of shooting on the roster. "But that’s not in my control. I play with the cards I’m dealt.
"And we still didn’t have a full deck this year," he added in reference to the Lakers' rotten injury luck, "so you can’t just throw out that philosophy or say it didn’t work."
Rondo was more preoccupied with defense. "Championships are won defensively. It’s a make-or-miss league, so it helps if you do have a lot of 3-point makers, but you’re not going to outscore the Warriors in a seven-game series. The only way you’re going to do it is by getting defensive stops. I think we had that type of roster when we were healthy."
Though the roster may not have been as defensive-minded as Rondo seems to believe, it's true that when James injured his groin during a Christmas Day victory over Golden State, the Lakers ranked 10th in defensive efficiency. In the 821 minutes James and Lonzo Ball shared the court, Los Angeles posted a defensive rating (102.7 per 100 possessions) that would best any NBA team by nearly two full points.
"You have to be on a string defensively, and we haven’t been able to have that chemistry, necessarily," Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma said of the defensive woes. "When you have guys out that are big communicators, who are really good defensively, that takes a toll."
Lakers head coach Luke Walton didn't hesitate when asked how his team's season veered off the rails.
"The thing that stands out the most is our defense," Walton said. "When we were winning games, our defense was pretty darn good. That plays hand in hand with our pace being high and us getting out in (transition) and getting easy buckets. Those are the kinds of things that have dropped off and have been affected by the wear and tear of the season."
There are some holes in that argument, however. The Lakers played at the fourth-fastest pace through Christmas, and it has remained there, even after the trade deadline. The average length of their offensive possessions, as recorded by InPredictable, has barely wavered from their season average of 13.5 seconds.
|Period||Off. possession length||Rank|
|Before Christmas||13.3 seconds||5th|
|Between Christmas and trade deadline||13.9 seconds||11th|
|After trade deadline||13.5 seconds||6th|
So there's not much evidence to suggest their sliding defense affected their offensive identity. Getting out and running might not have suited this team, anyway. Though Walton's Lakers rank fourth in both frequency of possessions spent in transition and in total transition points, the ugly truth is that they're 20th in transition efficiency, according to NBA.com. Even at their Christmas peak, the Lakers were a middling 16th in points per possession, and it's clear Walton had few solutions for the anemic roster handed to him.
As Rondo quipped, "Shooters shoot. Shot-makers make shots."
The Lakers' offensive makeup is particularly jarring when compared to previous LeBron-led teams, especially when you consider James entered the season having seen his teams finish with a top-six offensive rating 10 years running.
|LeBron-led teams||Off Rtg||Team 3P%||Team Pace|
Rondo and others can cling to the 'defense wins championships' mantra, but the truth is that the last five NBA champions have all ranked in the top six in offensive efficiency, in the top seven in 3-point percentage, and in the top four in effective field goal percentage. In contrast, last year's Warriors and James' 2016 Cavaliers ranked a solid yet unspectacular 11th and 10th, respectively, on the defensive end.
In the modern game, great offenses that can shoot win championships, as long as their defense doesn't drag them down. Even at their best this season, the Lakers boasted a middling offense boosted by a solid (but not elite) defense.
Injuries alone can't account for that, or for the fact the Lakers trail the Clippers, Kings, and Timberwolves in the standings, while barely holding off the ravaged Pelicans - the team Anthony Davis so desperately wanted to spurn in favor of L.A. - for 12th place in the West. This was a poorly constructed team by management, and one that lacked much of an identity on either end of the court from a coaching perspective.
Which brings us to the players, themselves.
The aforementioned vets signed to one-year deals early in the summer largely performed to the modest output most expected of them.
The young players touted as building blocks of the future for the Lakers showed flashes of brilliance, particularly Kuzma and Brandon Ingram. But Ingram's season came to a concerning end because of a blood clot, and neither excelled in a way that, say, former Laker D'Angelo Russell did this season with the Nets.
Ball's value far outweighs his individual numbers, and the season-ending ankle injury he suffered in mid-January has been felt on the court. After two pro seasons, he'll have missed 65 games. Josh Hart continues to flash defensive promise, but does he defend at the level necessary to negate the 24-year-old's 41/34/69 shooting splits?
At the center of it all, of course, is James.
Thirty-four-year-olds with more than 56,000 NBA minutes under their belt aren't supposed to average 27.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 8.0 assists per game in their 16th season. James should be lauded for the ease with which he still can. But James never seemed to reach his top gear this season, which is what separates him from any other player on the planet. Although the groin injury robbed him of nearly a quarter of the season, all those minutes could be catching up to him. Did he suffer from a growing apathy as the Lakers struggled after his return? Top-gear LeBron could've dragged even this group to the playoffs, extending his personal 13-year postseason streak.
This surely isn't what James signed up for nearly nine months ago. He couldn't have envisioned the celebratory moment he passed Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list being overshadowed by his team's dramatic struggles. He didn't come to L.A. to be dragged by Walt Frazier and inadvertently memed by Mario Hezonja.
The Lakers didn't sign up for this version of James, either, especially on the defensive end. Johnson and Pelinka will see James' remarkable streak of 11 consecutive first team All-NBA selections come to an end. They've seen him lose patience with his younger teammates quickly. There is lots of blame to go around.
Kuzma, though, rejects the idea that the season has been a waste.
"For me, I’m still trying to find my way in this league," he said. "I’m still trying to prove myself. It’s all about development, game in and game out, and really just learning. Every game is still an opportunity to learn."
However, this learning was supposed to be done while winning under James, perhaps even getting an early taste of playoff pressure. How much positive development can be achieved in this disheveled, garbage-time portion of the schedule?
Making matters worse, the Clippers are succeeding under opposite circumstances. Despite a revolving door of stars over the last couple years, the Clippers have emerged as a well-run, well-coached, feel-good playoff team, perhaps making themselves a more attractive Hollywood free-agent destination than the Lakers.
Landing James was supposed to be a mammoth first step in reconnecting with the Lakers' legendary history. Instead, the separation from those glory days lingers, and their playoff drought is now six seasons.
Perhaps the basketball gods will shower them with lottery luck in June's draft, or the weight of Lakers' lore coupled with James' presence is enough to lure another superstar in free agency. This time next year, this season's failures could be long forgotten.
For now, this is what management's decisions have wrought. It remains to be seen if they've learned any lessons.