Updated: Apr 7
Photo Credit: Eric Drost (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LeBron_James_Carmelo_Anthony_(LA_Lakers).jpg)
To be honest, it’s probably better this way. Better that we won’t be subjected to watching this horrendous Los Angeles Lakers team stumble and bumble through the NBA’s Play-In Tournament that they would assuredly lose. Better that we don’t have to hear any more about LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook and whatever the hell else is the matter with this team. Better that we can finally move on and appreciate what teams like the Phoenix Suns are doing right now and will continue to do in the playoffs moving forward.
Still, before we bury this 2021-22 Lakers team completely, let’s take a minute to reflect on how absurd it is that they are even in this position right now.
After losing 121-111 to the Suns in Phoenix last night, the Lakers have officially been knocked out of the Play-In Tournament and will not have the opportunity to participate in the 2022 NBA Playoffs. It’s for the best. No team 18 games below .500 should have a chance to play for an NBA title, no matter how long the odds. Otherwise, what was the point of the 82-game regular season?
That the Lakers are even in this spot right now is one of the most disappointing results in NBA history. Just for reference, before the season, BetMGM Sportsbook in Las Vegas posted the Lakers’ over/under win total at 53.5 wins. With just three games to go, the Lakers would have to win out just to get within 20 wins of their preseason projections. Not only that, but most analysts also expected the Lakers to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
This season has been an abject disaster for the Lakers. It’s arguably even more of a disaster for Mr. Lebron Raymone James, himself.
Over his long and impressive career, James has established himself as one of the greatest players to ever suit up in the NBA. He carried substandard supporting casts to NBA Finals with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he led super teams to championships with the Miami Heat and the Lakers, and he’s defined and redefined what’s possible for NBA players present and future.
This year, however, James’ legacy took a huge hit.
Widely considered one of the two best players in NBA history, along with His Airness, Michael Jordan, James may have to settle for second-best after this horrible year.
This is not to say everything is LeBron’s fault. After all, he is averaging 30.3 points per game, which would be the second highest mark of his career, to go with his pretty typical 8.2 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game. At the same time, can anyone imagine Michael Jordan allowing one of his teams to disappoint like THIS?
Again, all the Lakers’ problems can’t be pinned on LeBron. But James’ fingerprints are all over the construction of this current Lakers’ roster. Let’s start with the much-maligned Russell Westbrook, who the Lakers traded for in the offseason. It’s been widely reported that the Lakers could have potentially secured sharpshooting guard Buddy Hield from the Sacramento Kings for significantly less compensation than the package needed to acquire Westbrook. LeBron and Davis, however, insisted that Westbrook was the missing piece.
To pour even more salt into the wound, Magic Johnson, who won five NBA titles with the Showtime Lakers in the 80s, reported on ESPN’s First Take with Stephen A. Smith that DeMar DeRozan, who was a free agent, wanted to play for the Lakers. Instead, DeRozan signed with the Chicago Bulls, and went on to have the finest season of his career, averaging a career high 28.2 points per game on 50.5% shooting from the floor. The Lakers could have had DeRozan in an All-NBA year and Hield in a role perfectly suited to his skill set. They got Westbrook at his absolute worst instead.
The stink of this Lakers’ roster isn’t just limited to Westbrook, though. Davis, who has had a fantastic NBA career in his own right, just cannot, for whatever reason, stay healthy. Again, this was another player that LeBron insisted the Lakers acquire, no matter how much the compensation.
Yes, the Lakers did win the 2020 NBA Finals during the pandemic-shortened “bubble year,” but outside of 2020, the Lakers haven’t been accomplishing much recently. While Davis is a remarkable player when healthy, he can’t help them from the bench, and the Lakers would certainly love the help of one of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, or Josh Hart, who were all included in the deal for Davis. At the very least, maybe the Lakers could have found a contributor in the NBA Draft with one of the three first-round picks they also included in the Davis deal.
Speaking of the NBA Draft, the Lakers did manage to find a surprising contributor when they acquired swingman Talen Horton-Tucker from the Washington Wizards. Horton-Tucker, who was selected in the second round of the 2019 Draft, had an impressive showing in summer ball and quickly established himself as a future asset for the Lakers. Despite his preseason work, Horton-Tucker did not contribute much to the 2019-20 Lakers’ campaign that ended with the bubble championship.
Horton-Tucker would go on to be a nice rotational player for the Lakers in the 2020-21 season, but, up to this point, that’s been about it. That didn’t stop the Lakers from handing him their largest free agency contract of the entire 2021 offseason at 3 years, $32 million. While it might seem really, really odd to give an unproven bench player that much money, it makes more sense when you consider some of the underlying factors. And by underlying factors, I mean Horton-Tucker’s relationship with his agent, Rich Paul, and Paul’s relationship to LeBron James.
For those who aren’t aware, Paul is a longtime friend of James’ and is now the lead agent at Klutch Sports Group, the sports agency started by Paul with James as his first client. Klutch has grown to represent some of the biggest names in basketball, such as James’ teammate Anthony Davis, Brooklyn Nets’ forward Ben Simmons, Golden State Warriors’ forward Draymond Green and Atlanta Hawks’ point guard Trey Young. I forgot to mention someone…oh yeah, it’s LeBron’s other teammate, Talen Horton-Tucker.
It’s still too early to say for sure that giving Horton-Tucker that big contract was a mistake, but it definitely seems like Klutch Sports is pulling some of the Lakers’ strings. This, more than anything, is damaging LeBron’s legacy.
Ever since he first left Cleveland for Miami in 2010, James has stylized himself as a sort of new-age, player-general manager who not only has complete control over his future, but the future of the franchises he plays for. Every stop James has made since 2010 has included wholesale changes of rosters, coaching turnover, and ceaseless pressure on the front office to bring in top talent. These are all good things on the surface. Below the surface, though, James’ control over these rosters are actually causing more harm than good.
Take the current Lakers’ for example. Instead of allowing the team to grow organically with young players like Ingram, Ball and Hart, James demanded that they be shipped out for a player who can help LeBron win right away (i.e. Anthony Davis). Instead of valuing draft picks for the influx of cheap, young talent they can provide an aging team, James doubled-down on veterans, opting to bring in Westbrook and his old pal Carmelo Anthony.
You can’t imagine Michael Jordan doing any of this. While Jordan has built a reputation as a fearsome competitor, he also knew his role. Jordan was never in the business of building NBA rosters. He was in the business of taking his game to the highest level. He was in the business of getting the most out of his teammates. LeBron seems to be in the business of being an NBA scout, team president, brand ambassador, lead negotiator, and whatever else he wants to add to his plate. Maybe he should let the people who were hired to fill those roles actually do their jobs.
But even beyond the bizarre player-acquisitions, James is falling behind Jordan in perhaps the most crucial of all sports categories: effort.
The loss last night to the Suns was the Lakers’ seventh in a row. They have only won four games in total since the All-Star Game back on February 20. They average 13.9 turnovers per game (3rd worst in the NBA) and sport the league’s eighth-worst team defensive rating.
Back on February 27, after the Lakers lost in embarrassing fashion to the New Orleans Pelicans who are without their best player in Zion Williamson, Westbrook opined that other teams’ game plans were just to try harder than the Lakers. Since then, it seems like that game plan is still working.
“The biggest thing that I think about personally is what we could have been, had we stayed healthy all year,” said Davis the other day. While that’s a nice sentiment, it doesn't really hold up under examination. The Denver Nuggets have maintained their position in the middle of the playoff race despite missing two of their three best players in Jamaal Murray and Michael Porter, Jr. The Memphis Grizzlies still remain at #2 in the Western Conference at 55-24 despite Ja Morant, one of the most dynamic and skilled guards in the league, missing over 20 games this season. The Lakers cross-town rival, the Clippers, have only had superstars Paul George for 29 games so far and Kawhi Leonard for none. They still managed to scrape together 39 wins.
Maybe I’m being too hard on LeBron and the Lakers…oh who am I kidding. This is an embarrassment for the ages. Like I said before, you can’t pin everything on LeBron, but you can still pin an awful lot. LeBron is having another career year, but the irony is that his career year may have sabotaged his career’s legacy.