The Los Angeles Lakers are a hot mess. LeBron James didn’t sign up for this dysfunction, but it might be his responsibility to save the Lakers from themselves.
The 2018-19 season was never about LeBron instantly making Los Angeles a viable championship contender. Not in the Western Conference dominated by Golden State. His first year was supposed to be an assessment of the Lakers’ young players and to see how far they were from making a push to the NBA Finals. Then, theoretically, the team would make key free agent/ trade acquisitions for a title run in 2019-20.
Everything was going according to plan heading into December. Los Angeles had just won at Golden State 127-101 and were 20-14 overall. But the seemingly indestructible James, who had never missed significant time with injury, hurt his groin. Since then, Los Angeles:
- Failed to acquire Anthony Davis
- Dropped out of playoff contention
- Saw Magic Johnson abruptly resign as team president
- Endured a coaching search fiasco, culminating the odd hire of Frank Vogel with Jason Kidd as an assistant
It’s been embarrassing for the Lakers. It’s been embarrassing for LeBron, arguably the NBA’s greatest player. Everyone is wondering: does Los Angeles team owner Jeanie Buss know what she’s doing? LeBron who turns 35 in December; is this the beginning of the end?
James played a career-low 55 games and finished with his second worst season in terms of win shares (7.2). Injury and inactivity on defense are traditionally signs of aging. The Lakers record before LeBron was 35–47 in 2017-18. The Lakers record with LeBron was 37–45. (They were 28-27 in games LeBron was actually on the court.)
James bares ample responsibility, but forget about trading him. He is the most powerful player in team sports history. In the NBA, the power dynamic has shifted. It’s the players who wield considerable influence when it comes to personnel movement: more than the owners or the GMs. LeBron changed the game this way. He along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh conspired to form the Big Three in Miami and win two championships.
When he returned to Cleveland, it seemed like he was the star, the coach and general manager. Everyone appeared to be working for him. He wields that kind of influence. He’s also incredibly intelligent and calculating. It’s impossible to believe that he doesn’t have a long-term plan to figure out how to be championship relevant – even as he creeps closer to retirement.
What does LeBron have up his sleeve? One thing is obvious: get Davis to the Lakers (James and Davis share the same agent: Rich Paul). It didn’t work the first time and New Orleans doesn’t want to give in. However, the Pelicans have a new leadership with Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin. You might remember him. He won an NBA championship with LeBron in Cleveland. Given their previous relationship, that could help make a trade to Los Angeles happen. Plus, Davis does have some leverage. He can refuse to sign a contract extension if New Orleans sends him anywhere but the Lakers. The draft lottery also changes things. Having the No.4 overall pick gives Los Angeles more ammunition for a potential trade.
The possibility of the Knicks and Lakers in the 3 and 4 spots, potentially using those picks in competing Anthony Davis trade proposals, is incredible
— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) May 15, 2019
If LeBron can’t get Davis, this summer’s free agent class offers some options. The top tier stars (Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard) seem unlikely. Durant is rumored for the New York Knicks and Leonard might be more inclined to go to the Clippers, if he doesn’t just stay in Toronto.
The second tier consists of Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Klay Thompson. Among that group, Kemba Walker could be the most attainable. Irving might team up with Durant in New York, and it’s hard to see Thompson leaving Golden State – even though he has deep L.A ties (He was born there, and his father played the Lakers). And there’s Jimmy Butler who could play almost a Dwyane Wade role for LeBron.
It will be up to James to sell the Lakers as a preferred destination. He’ll have more influence on free agents than Buss or general manager Rob Pelinka. With $41 million in cap space and the No.4 overall pick, the Lakers should be vastly more talent next season.
Now, let’s talk about Vogel.
Does it matter who is holding the clipboard? LeBron’s last two coaches in Cleveland both got to the NBA Finals. Neither is currently employed. Fairly or not, that tells you a lot about David Blatt and Ty Lue. Yes, it was humiliating for the Lakers to see the anticipated reunion of LeBron and Lue fall apart over money. But Lue isn’t Gregg Popovich.
For the most part, LeBron’s coaches have been administrative assistants. Guys who fulfilled necessary duties but were not considerable strategic masterminds, the lone exception being Miami’s Erik Spoelstra.
Vogel’s résumé suggests that he’s a replacement level coach (304-291 record). But he had success with the Pacers (.580 winning percentage) before a disastrous two-year stint with Orlando (.329). It’s funny. If Vogel hadn’t taken the Orlando job immediately after being fired by Larry Bird, the perception of Vogel to the Lakers would be viewed differently.
Vogel certainly seems capable of doing the job Blatt and Lue did. What makes Vogel’s hiring problematic are the reports that Vogel is merely a placeholder and that Kidd will likely take over as coach when/if Vogel stumbles.
Regardless, it’s up to LeBron to make this situation work. He must publicly support Vogel even if he privately has more respect for Kidd. That’s the only way he’s going to get complete buy-in from his younger teammates. James needs youthful legs to help him age gracefully.
With a little luck, James could have one last championship run in him. It might not be too late to save the Lakers.