- The Los Angeles Lakers are suddenly facing a potential crisis in which they miss the playoffs this season.
- There is a nightmare scenario where the Lakers stumble on the path to building a contender around LeBron James.
- The Lakers could miss out on the top free agents in 2019, then fail to land Anthony Davis in a trade.
- That could force them to look into trading for other star players or pushing back their free agency plans another year.
- Underlying all of this is James continues to grow older, and it’s unclear how long he can be the best player on a championship team.
With 22 games remaining in the regular season, the Los Angeles Lakers find themselves in desperation mode.
After a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday, the Lakers are now 29-31, tied for 10th place, three games behind the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
FiveThirtyEight gives them just an 18% shot at making the playoffs, and the eighth seed in the West is currently projected to land at 44 wins. The Lakers would need to go 15-7 in the final weeks just to get there.
Expectations were modest for LeBron James’ first year in Los Angeles. Many people knew the Lakers hadn’t assembled a true title contender around James, and instead filled in the holes around him and their young core with one-year contract fill-ins.
However, the beginning of the James era has been rockier than most expected, thanks, in part, to a 6-11 slide that occurred when he was out of the lineup with an injury.
There is certainly enough time for the Lakers to recover and make the playoffs. But if they don’t, there is a nightmare scenario in play, where several dominoes fall, leaving the Lakers stuck in a rut.
Here’s how it could go:
1. The Lakers miss the playoffs this season
Nobody signs the best player in the league with the idea that they won’t make the playoffs.
If the Lakers fail to make the postseason in their first year with James, it would be a failure. The Lakers’ front office has spoken publicly about trying to restore the franchise’s image and place among the NBA’s royalty. Landing the top free agent by simply being the Lakers is a good first step, but missing the playoffs – even in the deep and crowded Western Conference – is not a good start to the era.
There would be ramifications to missing the playoffs. First, it would be a wasted year on the back-end of James’ prime. At 34, the Lakers don’t have too many years left where James can be the best player on a championship team. He’s already defied some of the preconceived notions about ageing and excellence in the NBA, but eventually, he’ll decline.
Second, the shine would continue to come off their young players. A package featuring Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Lonzo Ball wasn’t enough to entice the New Orleans Pelicans into trading Anthony Davis this year.
The members of the Lakers’ young core aren’t considered blue-chip prospects – promising and interesting, sure, but maybe not franchise centerpieces. If they aren’t good enough to help push the Lakers into the playoffs, their value may decrease further.
2. The Lakers don’t land Anthony Davis this offseason
The Pelicans did the seemingly prudent thing this season by holding onto Davis at the trade deadline. In doing so, they gave themselves a wider array of options for dealing Davis this offseason.
However, that’s bad news for the Lakers. Their in-season trade packages weren’t enough to land Davis. Could that change in the offseason? Maybe! If they miss the playoffs, they will have a lottery pick to offer New Orleans, and a team like the Boston Celtics could get skittish about offering prized young forward Jayson Tatum.
As it stands, however, the Lakers can’t offer the best deal. Given the numerous reports that have suggested the Pelicans weren’t keen on trading Davis to the Lakers, his desired location, the Lakers appear to be underdogs in the race.
3. Help doesn’t come in free agency
The 2019 free agent class is one of the most stacked in recent history, including Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker, Tobias Harris, Khris Middleton, DeMarcus Cousins, Nikola Vucevic, and more.
The problem is, it’s unclear which of those star players will want to play for the Lakers.
The biggest name, Kevin Durant, criticised the culture around LeBron James as “toxic.”
Irving famously sought to get out from under James’ shadow in Cleveland.
Leonard is said to prefer the Los Angeles Clippers. Thompson is a strong bet to re-sign with the Warriors (barring some significant change). Butler did not have the Lakers on his list of desired trade destinations earlier this season.
Are players like Walker, Harris, Cousins, Middleton, or Vucevic big enough difference-makers to put the Lakers over the top?
What’s the Lakers’ Plan B if the top free agents spurn them? Do they splurge on the secondary stars like Middleton or Harris to put around James? Do they make more short-term signings to roll over their cap space to 2020, when Davis will become a free agent? That plan – even if they signed better players than the cast they came away with this past summer – doesn’t seem viable for a second straight year.
4. The Lakers get desperate for help
In today’s NBA, you can glance over rosters and guess which star players might be on the move next. A combination of contract length and a stagnant team can indicate that a star player might want out and his team might be willing to move him.
The NBA world was bracing for Davis’ “pre-agency” for years – he was coming up on a contract decision, and the Pelicans hadn’t built a contender around him.
Scan around the league this summer, and perhaps there might be a few star players available. Would another early playoff exit for the Portland Trail Blazers make Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum available? What about Bradley Beal, whose Washington Wizards are going nowhere fast? To be clear, there’s nothing to suggest that these players are available; their situations simply mirror when past star players have become available.
The Lakers could certainly try to pluck a star away from another team, but the question is how they would acquire those players. Lillard or Beal might cost as much as Davis, but would the Blazers or Wizards, respectively, be interested in trade packages built around Kuzma, Ingram, and Lonzo Ball?
If the Lakers strike out on Davis and in free agency, teams will know they are desperate for help. Teams could prey on that desperation to raise the price for any star the Lakers go after.
5. LeBron’s clock continues to tick
How long can James continue to be the best player on a title-contending team? That’s a key question the Lakers have to answer, and it could direct how they go forward in building their roster.
James will turn 35 next season. There are already discussions about whether he’s still the best player in the league. There’s no doubt that James can summon a level few others can, but it’s becoming clear he can’t do it for 82 games anymore.
James will be owed $US39.2 million in 2020-21, when he’ll turn 36, with a $US41 million player option for 2021-22. How the Lakers build their roster around an ageing star with a massive cap hit will be worth monitoring. They will need players who can create plays and finish them around James. Those players will also need positive trajectories because the Lakers will have to account for James’ diminishing productivity.
Things can change suddenly, and the Lakers are not screwed just yet
Again, this is the nightmare scenario for the Lakers. Things could change suddenly; curveballs in the NBA have become the new norm.
One of the top free agents this summer might decide they want to play with James on the Lakers. Perhaps the Pelicans, with a new GM, decide to take the Lakers offer and end the Davis ordeal. People have already debated if Ben Simmons could make the historical decision to turn down a max offer from the Philadelphia 76ers to go to the Lakers, a franchise to which he has some ties. Maybe a star nobody saw coming becomes available and goes to the Lakers.
Perhaps the Lakers even make a push to the playoffs this year, then one of their young players pop next season, making the leap from good to great.
The Lakers are far from finished, and there are paths they could follow to getting back to title contention. But to build a contender around James, from where they currently stand, is going to take work. As this season has shown, there is a possibility they come up short.
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