The arrival of LeBron James as their latest in a succession of superstar imports was supposed to halt the longest period of suffering in the Los Angeles Lakers’ California history.
What James and the Lakers have experienced instead will be remembered as the most disappointing season of James’s career — because it will extend a stubborn playoff drought that has flummoxed the N.B.A.’s most glamorous franchise.
Not even James’s presence could prevent a sixth straight missed postseason for the new Lakers, who are mere days from being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs entering Sunday’s visit to Madison Square Garden to face the Knicks. The Lakers, remember, missed the playoffs only four times in their first 53 seasons after relocating from Minneapolis in the 1960-61 season.
So much for Hollywood fairy tales.
Perhaps expectations for this team were unrealistically high, given the modest quality of James’s supporting cast in Year 1, but his Lakerland debut was never supposed to veer this far off-script for a once-in-a-generation player. What follows is a breakdown of how things fell apart — in six stages.
The Shortest of Honeymoons
Without warning, on July 1, 2018, the first night of N.B.A. free agency, James announced through a 39-word news release that he was signing a four-year, $154 million contract with the Lakers.
Yet the ensuing celebration did not last even 24 hours.
On July 2, Golden State boldly swiped some of the Lakers’ thunder by signing the former All-Star big man DeMarcus Cousins to a bargain deal. The Lakers then spent the next week scouring the league for the best players willing to sign one-year contracts — thereby preserving salary-cap flexibility for the summer of 2019 and their planned pursuit of an All-Star sidekick for James.
The problem: Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ nascent front-office power duo, signed a slew of nonshooters and, shall we say, mercurial personalities who, as a group, prompted instant second-guessing.
The Lakers countered the skepticism by insisting that playmakers and playoff-tested veterans, rather than shooting specialists who could open up space on the floor, would ease LeBron’s burden and potentially even match up well with the mighty Warriors — only to see their signees do little to hush the told-you-so crowd. JaVale McGee, the veteran center, initially exceeded expectations, but the quartet of Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Michael Beasley proved as collectively ineffective as feared.
Perhaps we should have known that this was not going to be the usual LeBron season when a fight broke out between a number of Lakers and Houston Rockets in James’s first home game at Staples Center.
And the tension never really let up.
After just eight games — five of them losses — Johnson summoned Coach Luke Walton for a pointed lecture about the Lakers’ sluggish start. The team’s legendary point-guard-turned-team president never intended for the meeting or any details to leak to the news media, but they promptly did in the no-secrets world of the N.B.A.
Johnson immediately tried to play down suggestions that Walton’s job was already in jeopardy, in an interview with The Los Angeles Times, but he would not go further than proclaiming that Walton was “going to finish the season, unless something drastic happens, which it won’t.”
Walton is certainly not blameless in the Lakers’ struggles. His lineups, rotations and responsibility for L.A.’s worrisome drop to No. 22 leaguewide in offensive efficiency have routinely been questioned. Management, furthermore, is said to be dismayed by Walton’s refusal to hire a seasoned former head coach as his top assistant — something young coaches (Walton is 38) frequently do.
Yet the public nature of the heat Walton took from his own front office made Johnson look impatient and, worse, ramped up the pressure on everyone in the Lakers’ locker room — especially the coach — before they even made it to Thanksgiving. With two years left on a five-year deal, Walton is widely expected to be shoved out of his toasty seat for good at season’s end.
(Only a Somewhat) Merry Christmas
What can be classified as the best day of the Lakers’ season, if you only considered the box score, is also bound to be remembered as this season’s low point.
The Lakers went to Oakland on Christmas Day for a game in the most anticipated television time slot on the regular-season calendar and throttled the two-time defending champion Warriors. The 127-101 rout capped an 18-9 surge that nudged L.A.’s record to 20-14, good for a promising fourth in the dauntingly deep Western Conference.
But James strained his left groin as he stretched to retrieve a loose ball in the third quarter. The Lakers gradually pulled away without him — and James optimistically posted to Twitter the next day about how he “dodged a bullet,” with a #BackInNoTime hashtag — but the injury turned out to be the most serious he had ever sustained.
James eventually missed 17 games. No previous injury had ever sidelined him longer than the eight games he lost to a back injury in 2014-15. The Lakers went 6-11 without James and, even accounting for all of their missteps before and after LeBron went down, can rightly point to suddenly losing their star as the biggest blow to the team’s playoff hopes.
It remains unclear how #BackInNoTime turned into six weeks on the sideline for James. An inevitability given his age (34)? The byproduct of the Lakers playing at a much faster pace than LeBron’s Cleveland teams? A freak occurrence?
Maybe it was a combination of all those factors.
What’s clear, though, is that the Lakers’ overall poor health has consistently hurt them.
The Lakers, for starters, are 6-15 since Jan. 19, when Lonzo Ball, who had begun to impress James as their starting point guard, sustained a serious ankle injury. And there’s more.
Tyson Chandler, the veteran center who made such an impact defensively after joining the team Nov. 6, is dealing with a neck ailment. Josh Hart, the promising second-year guard, has been plagued by tendinitis in his left knee for months. And Brandon Ingram, the swingman with tantalizing potential as a scorer, missed several games with ankle and shoulder problems before he was ruled out for the rest of the season recently with deep venous thrombosis.
The Anthony Davis Flirtation Fiasco
In real time, only 11 days elapsed between New Orleans forward Anthony Davis’s trade request going public on Jan. 28 and the league’s Feb. 7 trade deadline. But that surely felt like an eternity for the Lakers’ quartet of starlets: Ingram, Ball, Hart and Kyle Kuzma.
Especially since the fallout is continuing.
From the minute James arrived in Hollywood, after the Lakers made unsuccessful trade runs at Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, it was known that the team would try to trade for Davis — which meant all four of L.A.’s top young players were destined to hear their names in trade speculation. Yet the leaguewide consensus was that Davis would not be made available until at least the 2019 off-season, theoretically giving the starlets an opportunity to build something with James — and maybe even change management’s mind about looking externally for LeBron’s superstar sidekick.
But Davis’s trade request changed everything. Rich Paul, LeBron’s agent and longtime friend, became Davis’s agent in September and was widely perceived to have made the trade request on Davis’s behalf to get him to Los Angeles. A seemingly ceaseless stream of leaked Lakers offers thereafter irreparably fractured the locker room, no matter how hard Paul pushed back against that narrative.
Nor can the team fully move on from the trade drama, because everyone knows the front office will be back on the phones with New Orleans soon, trying to beat out the Boston Celtics’ package for Davis once the Pelicans start fielding offers for him anew.
A Feb. 12 road loss to the Atlanta Hawks was the Lakers’ fourth in five games entering the All-Star break and lowered their record to 28-29. James emerged from the break insisting that he would shift into playoff mode far earlier than normal — “It’s been activated,” LeBron promised — but the Lakers promptly lost road games to the Davis-less Pelicans and the draft-minded Memphis Grizzlies after a hope-building home win against the Houston Rockets.
The season effectively ended March 2 in Phoenix, when the Lakers lost to a Suns team in the midst of a 1-18 funk. The defeat meant L.A. had fallen to five of the league’s six teams which currently have sub-.400 winning percentages (Chicago is the only exception). The loss was soon followed by announcements that Ball and Ingram would be held out of the Lakers’ remaining games — and that James’s minutes would be reduced.
James was held out of Friday’s game against the Detroit Pistons via the increasingly popular leaguewide synonym for rest — “load management.” LeBron’s load, of course, is about to become lighter in April, May and June than anyone expected.
These Lakers were never a lock to reach the playoffs in the loaded West, but the overwhelming majority of league observers and Las Vegas oddsmakers — who largely pegged them as a 48-win team — figured LeBron would find a way. He has instead absorbed criticism for spotty leadership and intermittent engagement with his new team as he prepares for life as a playoff spectator for the first time since his second N.B.A. season (2004-5).
Last summer, when he was still preaching patience, Johnson did say that he would need two off-seasons to assemble a true contender even if the Lakers were fortunate enough to land LeBron. “Next summer, if nobody comes and I’m sitting here like this, then it’s a failure,” Magic said at the time.
But spring has barely sprung — and next summer is already here for the Lakers and James. Sooner than they ever envisioned, Magic, Pelinka and Jeanie Buss, the Lakers’ owner, are on the clock to make moves that lead to a honeymoon that lasts.