Down by only three points, with less than 25 seconds remaining in the game, Lebron James of the Los Angeles Lakers tried to drive past Brooklyn Nets center Jarrett Allen towards the right side of the basket. Shooting guard Alex Caruso, the Lakers’ best three-point shooter on the court, was wide open and in a position to tie up the game. Instead of making a pass, however, James slipped out of bounds and turned the ball over to the Nets. After a couple of Nets free throws, the game ended in a 111-106 loss for the Lakers, mathematically eliminating them from the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year.
Sadly, this has been one of the better seasons for the Lakers in the past five years. This past decade has not been kind to the franchise, plaguing them with injuries and disgracing their brand, but a lot of the recent adversity is their own fault, too. Their troubles began earlier in the decade, but the incompetence really started to present itself during the 2016-17 NBA season.
The 2016-17 season was a year in a while that optimism began to creep back into fans’ minds. The Lakers had drafted Brandon Ingram of Duke and Croatian junior national team member Ivica Zubac. The team had appointed Lakers legend Magic Johnson to be the president of basketball operations and Rob Pelinka, who had been the sports agent for Golden State Warriors superstar Kevin Durant, to be the general manager. Additionally, they brought in Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, who would help the Lakers in their first season without an icon on their team. It turns out that this optimism was slightly misplaced. The Lakers did improve on their record but only by nine games, missing the playoffs for yet another year. They spent their cap space foolishly, giving Timofey Mozgov (who averaged less than eight points per game) a four-year contract worth $64 million dollars. Even worse, they gave Luol Deng a four-year contract worth $72 million dollars, a deal which resulted in Deng getting paid over $1 million for every minute he played in the season. They shipped off Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets for Corey Brewer, who would end up starting a total of five games and averaging less than five points a game in his year with the Lakers. Since being traded, Williams won another Sixth Man of the Year and is likely to win another this season, averaging a career high of 20.3 with the Clippers.
Right before the 2017 NBA draft, the Lakers traded D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to the Nets for Brook Lopez and a first-round draft pick. This was one of the most rash and reckless decisions of the Lakers during this period. President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson stated that “what I needed was a leader” and that Russell was not someone who “can make the other players better” or one that “players want to play with.” Russell is now an All-Star and is leading the Nets to the playoffs for the first time in four years, having knocked his previous team out of the postseason for the sixth straight year. The Lakers’ management underestimated Russell’s potential and did not give him a good environment to develop his skills as a young player. GM Rob Pelinka also claimed that the Lakers could now sign two max-contract players with their new cap space. At this point in time, they were desperately trying to get Indiana Pacers small forward Paul George, but he instead signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder. No other stars signed with the Lakers that offseason except for Lebron James, who we’ll get to later. Finally, it was heavily predicted that the team would draft UCLA prospect Lonzo Ball with the second overall pick. Finally, the Lakers claimed that their deep interest in Lonzo Ball prevented them from keeping Russell. However much they thought Russell wasn’t a good leader, they cannot have thought that Ball would be much better. Ball was criticized by sports media for being too introverted and too scared to shoot the ball, but the Lakers drafted him anyways. Additionally, it was reported by USA Today that Magic Johnson didn’t even want to draft Ball, instead eyeing Kentucky star De’Aaron Fox, but was pressured by team owner Jeanie Buss to pick Ball for the “box-office draw” that Ball and his outspoken father LaVar would bring to the team. De’Aaron Fox is now known as one of the fastest players in the league and is on a Sacramento Kings team above the Lakers in the Western Conference standings. These reasons for letting go of D’Angelo Russell are nonsensical and are not fair to a young player who was trying to make a name for himself in the league, and is now succeeding on another team. Brook Lopez was traded after this season, as were their young assets in Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. Clarkson and Nance Jr. were traded for Channing Frye and Isaiah Thomas, both of who spent less than six months on the team and the latter doing so after undergoing hip surgery, as well as a draft pick that became Moritz Wagner of Michigan, who is averaging less than five points per game with the Lakers. The season ended with the Lakers missing the playoffs for the fifth consecutive time.
Lakers’ fans were now bored of their team, who had lost the glitz and glamor that they had had winning championships with NBA legends like Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. But everything seemed to change when Lebron James opted out of a contract with the Cavaliers and became a free agent, signing a four-year, $154 million dollar deal with the Lakers Jul. 1. Sports media and fans became immediately ecstatic, predicting that James would take the team deep into the playoffs. Stephen A. Smith, a commentator on ESPN’s First Take, stated “I believe it’s the Western Conference Finals…as long as they don’t run into Golden State.”
So what happened this season that went so, so wrong? Isn’t Lebron the greatest player in the league? Didn’t he take the woeful Cavaliers to the Finals last year? These questions have been asked by probably every casual basketball fan in America in the past couple of months, but it takes only a quick glance into the season to see what happened.
In the summer of 2018, the Lakers again desperately wanted small forward Paul George, who had been traded from the Pacers to the Thunder the previous year. Their attempts to trade for him fell on deaf ears, however, as George re-signed with the Thunder due to his close relationship with star Russell Westbrook and apparent conversations with former Lakers Corey Brewer (who had been waived by the team and had signed with the Thunder), as well as D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle (both of whom shared an agent with George). Randle and Brook Lopez were both let go by the Lakers, and signed with the New Orleans Pelicans and Milwaukee Bucks respectively. According to sources close to him, Randle had said that he felt the Pelicans really wanted him, and that the Lakers didn’t. Lopez said he was “surprised” that they didn’t try harder to keep him because he “would have wanted to play there.” That summer, L.A. signed a group of rotation players that included Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Lance Stephenson, Javale McGee, and Michael Beasley, all on one-year deals. The season began with a rough 0-3 start that included a home opener against the Rockets in which Rondo and Brandon Ingram exchanged punches with Chris Paul (all three of whom would get suspended for a couple games). By Dec. 16, they were looking improved, with an 18-16 record. However, November and December marked a period in which all of the Lakers’ starting lineup got injured. Rondo fractured his right hand Nov. 14, missing 17 games. Ingram sprained his ankle Dec. 5, missing seven games. McGee contracted pneumonia on Dec. 16, and missed the next seven games. But none of the injuries could stop the excitement fans had when Lebron James was asked by ESPN how he would react to the Lakers acquiring Pelicans star Anthony Davis. James said “That would be amazing,” and reports that the two had eaten dinner together after a game only skyrocketed the amount of rumors. But Davis was under contract until 2020, meaning James had to coax the Pelicans by using their assets on one-year deals: Caldwell-Pope, Stephenson, McGee, Beasley, as well as their younger players Ingram, Ball, Kuzma, and Josh Hart. This alienated the potentially traded players and later comments about them from James wouldn’t help. James suffered a strained groin in December and missed 17 games, and Ball sprained his ankle in January. By the time free agency had ended, the Lakers had only traded for Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala, reportedly to “free up roster space” for a shooter or big man. That player never came, and the team announced Ingram wouldand Ball would both miss the remainder of the season Mar. 9. By the time the Nets knocked the Lakers out of the playoffs Mar. 22, their roster was riddled with injuries, lack of effort, and uninspiring poor play. The Lakers announced their “superstar” Lebron James would sit out the last six games to allow his groin to fully heal.
Even during this offseason, it has been rough for the Lakers fanbase. Magic Johnson quit his position April 9, and it was revealed that neither Jeanie Buss nor Lebron James were informed before the public. Coach Luke Walton was fired April 12, and was immediately picked up by the Kings. The search for a new coach was yet another dramatic display of incompetence. The team was projected to hire either Monty Williams (former assistant coach for the Philadelphia 76ers) or Tyronn Lue (former Cleveland Cavaliers coach who paired up with Lebron James to win the 2016 NBA Finals). Williams unexpectedly signed with the Phoenix Suns (one of the worst teams in the NBA) over the Lakers, leaving Lue as the main target. Lue was expected to get the job due to his past relationship with the Lakers superstar and his relatively successful coaching career. It was revealed May 8 that Lue had rejected the Lakers short-term offer of a three-year deal, ending negotiations. Instead, the Lakers chose Frank Vogel to become their coach for the 2019-20 NBA season.
It’s clear that these past few years have become the most abysmal and forgettable for the Lakers, and although they haven’t been too lucky, a lot of the failures have been due to the management repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot. Jeanie Buss, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have failed to recognize some simple truths. Once Lakers’ players leave for other teams, they become better. They are inadequate in free agency recruiting. Their highly-valued draft picks never produce success. And just because they are the Lakers, the team that has won 16 championships and has the greatest player in the league right now, doesn’t mean they can win it all again. They need to stop yearning to be the Lakers of old and start looking towards the future.