Big things were expected from the Los Angeles Lakers this season when the team signed LeBron James to a free agent deal last summer. By acquiring James, the Lakers were supposed to advance their rebuild which began when Kobe Bryant retired.
The Lakers drafted Brandon Ingram 2nd overall in 2017 and then the Purple and Gold struck in 2018 when they landed three first rounders in Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart. Ingram took a while to develop but with the arrival of Ball, Kuzma and Hart, he started to come along. With four future superstars, the Lakers showed plenty of improvement and promise last season. Despite missing the playoffs again, it was easy to expect bigger things from them this season. Enter LeBron James.
James was supposed to make the Lakers an immediate title contender or a sure-bet playoff team at the very least. The Lakers were among the preseason betting favorites to win the title. And although only a few believed that they could get past Golden State, the Lakers’ diehards were looking forward to this season. But fast forward to March 2019, some are saying that the Lakers should trade LeBron instead. So what happened?
James suffered a groin injury during their Christmas Day game against the Golden State Warriors and would miss five weeks and 17 games. Los Angeles was 20-14 after beating the Dubs. They were 26-25 before James played his comeback games. Still, Los Angeles was in playoff contention. But they have spiraled ever since and are now virtually out of the playoff equation. With a season thrown away, the question now is what the Lakers will do this coming summer.
Let’s try to answer that question with this article:
Get That Second Superstar
The Lakers made a significant move during the offseason when they bought out the contract of Luol Deng. Deng was still owed two years of his four-year $72M deal which he signed in 2016. Deng agreed to give up $7.5M of his remaining salary and the Lakers used the stretch provision for the remaining $29M owed to Deng. As a result, ESPN said that the Lakers projected salary cap for the 2019 free agency ballooned from $25M to the $36-38M range and thus giving the Lakers the opportunity to sign a second max-free agent to pair with LeBron James.
This summer, superstar players like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Jimmy Butler are expected to be in the market. James picked Durant first in the last two All-Star drafts and there is rumor that trouble is brewing in Oakland. Thompson too, has been linked to the Lakers because his dad once played for the Purple and Blue. Leonard has reportedly preferred to go to Los Angeles, but to the Clippers and Butler has been described as a real possibility for the Lakers.
The recent development involving Boston Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving, who appears to be backtracking from his earlier statement that he will stay with the Boston Celtics even adds more color to the coming free agency. And with Irving and James having a better relationship now than before and Kyrie’s Celtics struggling to find their form this season, who knows what’s the deal with the two.
Regardless of who, the Lakers have the financial flexibility to add a second superstar to pair with James. In this scenario, they will keep their young core of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart but will have to let go of most, if not all of their veteran support players like Javale McGee, Kentavious Caldwell Pope, Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo and Tyson Chandler. Adding a second superstar is probably the best proposition because teams don’t win titles these days with one superstar. The question here is who will it be?
Trade From Their Roster
When the New Orleans Pelicans announced that Anthony Davis was on the trading block after his request for transfer, the Lakers were one of the teams who went into serious conversations with the Pelicans. Unfortunately, the Pelicans did not like the Lakers’ “Final” offer presumably because they want to wait for July 1 and see what the Boston Celtics have to offer.
The Celtics have better trade pieces and more lucrative draft picks than the Lakers. The problem with Boston was that it could not offer the Pelicans a deal because of a league rule related to the Kyrie Irving trade they consummated much earlier. Boston can only make the Pelicans an offer on July 1 and that was perhaps the reason why the Pelicans held on to Davis at the trade deadline.
But while the trade never materialized, the whole world knew that the Lakers offered a total of six players for Anthony Davis. The problem now is that Los Angeles’ morale was reportedly wounded when the players learned that the Lakers had offered them to the Pelicans. Sure, players know that the NBA is business. But the players on the Lakers’ final offer were either young prospects who have been with the team from the start or veteran support players who chose to sign with the Lakers last summer. With bridges supposedly burned, this was a major cause of the Lakers’ collapse in the second half of the season.
Locker room issues have supposedly come up as the Lakers’ struggled after the All-Star break. LeBron James called out his younger teammates and some of them were reportedly offended. Whether these were true or not, it’s a fact that the Lakers played like a disoriented unit after the All-Star break, causing the team to lose games and eventually disappear from the playoff picture. Because of this, a trade involving one or more of their current players is a real possibility. The Lakers need to start on the right foot next season.
Keep The Team Together
Buw while the Lakers have plenty of opportunities to bring in new faces that could help the team get back to the playoffs next season, there is also the option to keep the band together. This might sound off, given that the Lakers have the finances and resources to get better personnel and win right away. But remember that the Lakers were a Top-4 team in the Western Conference before LeBron James got hurt. They played a perfect game in upsetting the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day.
In short, the Lakers were getting along just fine and some were even saying they were ahead of their growth curve before the injury to LeBron James happened. James was dominating games and his young teammates were feeding off his greatness. The veteran role players were doing their share and the Lakers were starting to win games and proving their detractors wrong. And then LeBron got hurt.
James’ groin injury was the turning point of the Lakers’ season. Had James not get hurt, I’m sure the Lakers would be in playoff position right now. They were just starting to get along when it happened. They were coming off their best game of the season when King James got hurt. But sometimes things like that happen, especially in a physical sport like basketball and in an ultra-competitive league like the NBA. That said, with LeBron healthy, the Lakers can start all over again. But can they?
Egos have been touched, feeling have been hurt and I’m not sure if all the players on that team will ever be on the same page again. Even Luke Walton’s job is reportedly no longer secure after the season. I’m not sure if even Magic Johnson, with his golden smile and charisma, could make this team whole again. The reason I’m saying that is because I think there could be a broken glass effect in Lala Land. It could be irreparable. But will Magic at least try to fix things in a long offseason? I don’t know.
Where Do The Lakers Go From Here?
When the Lakers signed LeBron James to a mammoth deal, they did so knowing that they no longer have the 18-year old high school phenom. Sure, the Lakers got the best player in the planet. But he is already 34 years old and has already played 16 NBA season. Not to mention the receding hairline which is proof that father time may be about to catch up with the best basketball player in the planet since Michael Jordan.
The Lakers knew what they were getting and they knew they have to get that second superstar to pair with LeBron James because Superman no longer works these days. A team has to have a Batman and Robin or even the entire Justice League to win an NBA title these days. Sure, the Lakers have a talented core of young players who will definitely be stars in the future. But the Lakers cannot wait because time is ticking on LeBron James.
The Lakers cannot afford to wait, not with James at the helm. They are in a win-now mode and no doubt, they will get that second superstar next summer. For sure, the one-year deal veterans are most likely to go. I’m not sure what Magic and Pelinka do with their young core. And Luke Walton too. But whatever they decide to do next, the Lakers are going to swing for the fences this coming summer. It would be such a waste of talent and money if LeBron were to end up like LeBron from his first tour of duty with the Cavaliers.