Alright, let’s talk the Lakers and LeBron James, and what I feel has turned into a very odd posthoc narrative. As of this writing, the Lakers are out of the playoffs in all but the mathematical sense. Sure a bunch of stuff can bounce the right way, but I wouldn’t bet on it (I wouldn’t have bet on a 3-1 upset in the Finals either, so what do I know?) According to the mainstream media, the Lakers are a mess, and LeBron’s camp is mostly to blame. And that to me is just off, so let’s talk about the Lakers in a fun list format!
1. The Real Story is Injury
LeBron James is still playing like a top player in the NBA this season. His stat line is close to identical to last season’s. His drop in production, according to our numbers, boils down to him playing bigger. Of course, the bigger story is LeBron James has already missed 18 games this season, the most of any year in his career. Lonzo Ball, the high draft pick the Lakers acquired last season has already lost 17 games this season. Rajon Rondo went down early and has only suited up for 30 of the Lakers games. Josh Hart has missed five games and is playing injured. The Lakers are three games below 0.500, but the core of players that some of us were very excited about just haven’t been healthy. Now, if preseason you said: “I don’t think LeBron, Hart, Lonzo, and Rondo can stay on the court.” that’s fine. But anyone patting themselves on the back for saying the Lakers would do poorly without that is fooling themselves.
2. Does anyone else remember the past five seasons?
My renowned Kobe “hate” has given me a lot of interaction with Lakers fans. And for many of them, their memory is selective. For instance, Kobe routinely shows up above Shaq on top X lists, and that baffles me, as that means you have to ignore all of Shaq’s time with Kobe to even consider such a thing. People considering the Lakers a trainwreck right now are in a similar frame of mind. If the Lakers go 6-11 for the remainder of the season, they’ll surpass their regular season win totals for the past five years. The Lakers were not in a good spot pre-LeBron. LeBron didn’t join a contender and dismantle them (see Carmelo Anthony for how to do that), no, he joined a weak squad, and they’ve improved with him. And on that note …
3. Team LeBron beats team Tank
While Philadelphia gets all the press for “the process” (intentionally losing multiple seasons to acquire multiple top draft picks in the hope a few will become stars), the Lakers were on the same path. Here’s how the Lakers crop of “tank picks” have looked this season. A reminder, 0.0 Points over Par 48 (Pop48) is average, +3.0 is "star level."
- Julius Randle picked 7th after a 27 win season, 5.0 Wins Produced, +1.1 PoP48
- D’Angelo Russell, picked 2nd after a 21 win season, 4.0 Wins Produced, +0.0 PoP48
- Brandon Ingram picked 2nd after a 17 win season, 1.8 Wins Produced, -1.6 PoP48
- Lonzo Ball picked 2nd after a 26 win season, 4.2 Wins Produced, +1.4 PoP48
Meanwhile, here’s how LeBron James and the veterans “GM LeBron” got for the Lakers look:
- LeBron James 7.4 Wins Produced, +3.6 PoP48
- Rajon Rondo 2.5 WIns Produced, +1.3 PoP48
- JaVale McGee 5.8 Wins Produced, +4.2 PoP48
- Tyson Chandler 3.7 Wins Produced, +3.4 PoP48
- Lance Stephenson 1.7 Wins Produced, -0.4 PoP48
The Lakers tanked to acquire a young core of players, and those players look downright mediocre this season. You’ll notice D’Angelo Russell and Randle are no longer with the Lakers, but even on their new squads, they are not currently close to the levels of Rajon Rondo and JaVale Mcgee. Now, obviously, young players have chances to improve. But as of yet, the young Lakers aren’t productive or healthy to be considered a strong squad.
4. Kyle Kuzma
Let’s give Kyle Kuzma his own bullet point, shall we? Kuzma wasn’t a “process” pick by the Lakers. He was a late first-round pick by the Brooklyn Nets that was traded to the Lakers to offload both D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov. Simple getting rid of those two bad contracts would have made it worth it. Of course, Kyle Kuzma then had to start his career amazingly hot. He shot almost 60% true shooting his first 20 NBA games, and looked like a late first round gem. Of course, young players are volatile, and since then Kuzma has been terrible. The problem is the Lakers have kept him as a key rotation player. Playing Kuzma and Ingram together pushes LeBron bigger, which is something the Lakers don’t need. Kuzma is part of the myth that the Lakers had a talented young core when the reality is he was a rookie that had an unusual start and still belongs nowhere near the starting rotation.
5. The Real LeBron Problem
LeBron James is 34 years old this season. This is the year Michael Jordan retired for the second time. Kobe Bryant played in his last playoffs at age 34 as well. So it’s odd to see people trying to use LeBron not playing like he did in 2007 to will the Cavaliers to the playoffs this season. He’s still a great player, but is older! I also think this fact impacted this season a little bit. It was believed Paul George was guaranteed to come to the Lakers this season (can you imagine!) Kawhi Leonard was also rumored to be traded to the Lakers. Of course, Kawhi wasn’t traded to the Lakers, and it’s possible with another year under LeBron’s belt, Kawhi will pull a Paul George and stay with Toronto.
And I want to compare LeBron James to another Lakers great: “Kobe Bryant.” A narrative around Kobe was that he was hard to get along with and players didn’t want to play with him. Allegedly Kevin Garnett chose against the Lakers in 2008 because of Kobe. And Shaq left the Lakers over disputes with Kobe. Fine. Except, guess what? Pau Gasol was fine getting traded to the Lakers and re-signing when Kobe was still good. Both Dwight Howard and Steve Nash were willing to be Lakers. It wasn’t until Kobe Bryant was completely spent that the Lakers allure wore off. There was a time in LeBron James’ career where just the prospect of playing with him could entice a player like Dwayne Wade to leave a guaranteed 20+ million dollar year on the table in the hopes of being on the same team. But players get older, and while NBA front offices and fans seem to forget this, other players seem aware of it. LeBron James has hit the point in his career where he’s possibly too expensive and volatile not be a sure-fire “five-year plan,” and other players know it. Of course, we’ll have to see what the offseason brings before I say that definitively.
6. This was never about the playoffs or a title.
For those arguing that LeBron wasted a shot at the Finals or the playoffs this year, I’m baffled. LeBron James has so many playoff records locked up, they’ll never be touched. LeBron made 8 straight NBA Finals, and has three Finals MVPs. In regards to postseason accolades, if you’re not convinced LeBron James is the best, there’s nothing else he can do. My theory on LeBron James going to Los Angeles was that he wanted to win the NBA all-time scoring record in a Lakers jersey. And, that’s a good thing. It’s hard to stay motivated and this is a good motivation. But anyone chastising LeBron for not going to Philly or another team because he might miss the playoffs is slightly off. Players can have multiple motives for where they play (almost, like they’re people), and applying a single criterion for LeBron’s success in LA this year is wrong.
When this season is over, there will be a lot of talk. And while I can’t say LeBron missing the playoffs in a Lakers jersey isn’t disappointing, I can’t call this season a failure. I can’t say it was obvious from the beginning the Lakers were doomed. I don’t think “GM LeBron mucked up a talented core.” I don’t think the Lakers front office was even close to bottom of the league in incompetence this season. I think the Lakers had some bad luck and many are looking for someone to blame. And blaming the greatest player to ever play the game is an odd take.