The Lakers built a bizarre team around LeBron James and now it is coming back to haunt them

Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

  • The Los Angeles Lakers are long shots to make the playoffs in LeBron James’ first season with the team.
  • Though there is plenty of blame to go around, one of the critical failings of the Lakers was their free-agency signings, which many questioned when they were made.
  • The Lakers signed several journeymen to one-year deals, but none of them provided the necessary shooting or defence that have made James-led teams successful.
  • While much attention was paid to the Lakers’ young core, those players have generally played well, while the Lakers’ free-agent signings have not had a positive on-court influence.

The Los Angeles Lakers are not officially eliminated from playoff contention, but Monday’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers felt like a breaking point.

At 30-34, the Lakers are 4 1/2 games out of the last playoff spot with 18 games and a difficult schedule remaining. In the past two weeks, the Lakers have stumbled several times, losing to bad teams at a critical juncture in their season. There’s little to suggest they can climb out of this slump and rally for the postseason over the next five weeks.

Much of the attention, of course, has gone to LeBron James. Perhaps this fate would have been avoided if James hadn’t injured his groin on Christmas and missed a month of the season, a stretch that saw the Lakers go 6-12, falling from fourth place in the West.

It’s natural for there to be questions about whether James, at 34, can still lead a team to a championship and who he can recruit to help turn things around.


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There has also been a great deal of focus on the Lakers’ young core, namely Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Lonzo Ball. All three were heavily involved in Anthony Davis trade rumours during the season and seemed to let it affect their play.


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Their roles and performances were analysed continuously, mainly because James has made no secret of his preference for veteran players, and these young players were thrown into the fire, asked to take on more prominent roles to lead the Lakers to the playoffs.

However, one of the reasons the Lakers appear set to miss the postseason is something most saw coming since July – the bizarre free-agent signings the Lakers made to fill out their roster.

Shortly after landing James on July 1, the Lakers added JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, Michael Beasley, and re-signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, all to one-year deals.

The NBA world immediately questioned these signings. James has thrived with shooters and defenders around him. The Lakers’ signings offered very little of that. Instead, they seemed poised to clog the paint and take the ball away from James. It certainly did not help that players such as McGee, Stephenson, Rondo, and Beasley are NBA journeymen with questionable on-court value.


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The Lakers reasoned these signings by saying they wanted to surround James with more ball handlers to ease the load on James. They wanted “tough” players with intangibles that could help win a playoff series. They said nobody could beat the Golden State Warriors by emulating them. The Lakers zigged where others zagged.

There was some reason for the premise. Perhaps it would be better to lighten the load on James in the regular season. The Lakers might not be a sweet-shooting team from deep, but with defence and a fast-paced offence (two things they largely achieved during the season), they could win enough games to make the playoffs.

Even still, it was hard not to come back to questioning the construction of the roster. Former Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin might have said it best when he argued that, if and when the Lakers made the playoffs, the players surrounding James wouldn’t work. You want James to have the ball when it matters; he’s the single best shot creator in the game, Griffin said. The Lakers surrounded him with players who couldn’t function well without the ball. The example Griffin used is James driving and kicking the ball for … a Rondo jumper?

James seemingly had input on the roster decisions, and he is not blameless. Magic Johnson, the team’s president, met with James when free agency began and spoke with him about signings.According to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, James wanted more ball handlers and tough veteran players. The Lakers also wanted one-year deals to preserve cap space for this summer.

Perhaps the Venn diagram of these types of players was small. The Lakers might have had limited options.

Nonetheless, James and the young Lakers mostly did their jobs. Ball, Ingram, and Kuzma have all raised their scoring averages and overall field-goal percentages (with declines in 3-point percentages) this season. Ingram and Kuzma have increased their free-throw rates, and both have shot better at the rim and in the paint.

They have struggled at times figuring out their fit next to James. That’s not surprising: Young players often have growing pains, and both players’ roles changed dramatically with the presence of James.

Over the past 11 games, Ingram has averaged 22 points, six rebounds, and three assists per game on 53% shooting, 45% from three. Kuzma has averaged nearly 20 points per game on 50% shooting over that stretch.

The Lakers’ on-off-court net-rating splits suggest they have been better with James, Ball, Ingram, and Kuzma on the floor, while they have been not so good with their free-agency signings.

Lakers on courtvia NBA.com/Stats

One offseason signing is looking worse and worse for the Lakers – signing Beasley for one year for $US3.5 million. That’s the same deal Brook Lopez got from the Milwaukee Bucks. Lopez was on the Lakers last season, and they let him walk in free agency.

This season, Lopez has been one of the best 3-point shooters in the league, providing key spacing at the center position for the Bucks while also defending capably for one of the league’s best defences. The Lakers cut Beasley in February.

Again, perhaps the Lakers didn’t have many options for players on one-year deals. But JJ Redick re-signed with the Philadelphia 76ers for one year for $US12.5 million – about the same deal the Lakers gave Caldwell-Pope.

Maybe Lopez and Redick didn’t want to sign with the Lakers. Could that have changed if the Lakers were offering better money than what both players got from Milwaukee and Philadelphia? The Lakers could have topped both players’ offers. The team might be in a better position today if they had.

Injuries have played a part. James has said he hasn’t had a season where so many key players have missed time. And it’s true: Injuries to Rondo and Ball (and of course James) have hurt the Lakers chemistry.

But every team has injuries and bad luck. The Lakers haven’t been good enough to overcome them.

Now the Lakers face an offseason with high stakes. They will try hard to land another star to play with James. As things stand, the odds don’t look good for landing the top free agents, such as Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Kawhi Leonard, based on reports and quotes from the players themselves.

Will the Lakers overpay for second-tier free agents, such as Tobias Harris and Khris Middleton, merely to add talent?

They will also reexplore trades for Davis. The only problem is, outside of a likely lottery pick, their offer hasn’t gotten better. Will the New Orleans Pelicans change their stance on trading Davis?

Striking out in both areas is a real possibility for the Lakers. If they do, the Lakers will have to get creative to turn things around, all while James’ clock ticks.

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