Whatever Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball become over the course of their careers, today the Lakers don't have the mature talent to carry the team in James' absence.
Injuries have been a problem for most of the year. James has been out since he strained his groin Christmas Day. Rajon Rondo went down the same day with a finger injury. Now Ball is sidelined for at least four to six weeks with a badly sprained ankle.
Without James, the Lakers have shown flashes—notably a recent road win over the Oklahoma City Thunder—but they've also fallen to the New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers and most recently Minnesota Timberwolves.
A second star would make a difference, but what if that never happens?
Paul George's refusal to take a meeting with L.A. this summer before re-signing with the Thunder still curbs the enthusiasm of Lakers fans. It also begs the question: did Los Angeles need two maximum-salary slots this summer? Did the Lakers clear too much space without a backup plan?
Landing James was an unequivocal coup, but it doesn't completely absolve Lakers President Earvin "Magic" Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka for market misreads on other players. The Lakers have discarded significant talent over the past couple of seasons—some justifiable, others questionable.
Let's look back at some of the key departures of the Johnson/Pelinka regime, with the caveat that most—but not all—decisions could be seen as a means to an end of landing James.
Lou Williams, Thomas Bryant and David Nwaba
Fresh on the job, prior to hiring Pelinka, Johnson traded Williams to the Houston Rockets for Corey Brewer and a first-round pick. The Rockets sent the Lakers the 28th overall pick, and Los Angeles rerouted it to the Utah Jazz for Josh Hart (30th) and Thomas Bryant (42nd).
The Lakers ended up waiving both Brewer and Bryant, the latter of whom is averaging 12.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game in January for the Washington Wizards. The Rockets later traded Williams to the Los Angeles Clippers, where he signed a three-year, $24 million extension. He remains the NBA's elite sixth man with averages of 18.5 points and 4.9 assists per game.
Williams is a better overall player than Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who is earning $12 million with the Lakers. While Caldwell-Pope is the better defender, more importantly he shares an agent with James in Rich Paul of Klutch Sports. Bringing in Caldwell-Pope last year was a key factor in opening the door to James this past July.
The Lakers also cut Nwaba, a strong defensive guard, to give Caldwell-Pope a slightly higher salary. He was quickly claimed by the Chicago Bulls and now plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Verdict: Waiving Bryant was a blatant mistake, but sacrificing Williams may be why James is a Laker. If the Caldwell-Pope/Klutch bridge was the necessary step to James, then losing Williams and Nwaba was a worthwhile decision, buffered by the addition of Hart.
D'Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov
The Lakers sent Russell to the Brooklyn Nets to make room for Lonzo Ball and shed an ugly Mozgov contract. In return, they got Brook Lopez and Kyle Kuzma (as the 27th pick in the 2017 draft). Perhaps the Lakers would have been able to land Kuzma with the No. 28 selection instead of trading down for Hart. Or maybe Kuzma would have lasted until No 30.
Either way, they got a nice young piece back in the trade.
Russell didn't stand out in his first season with Brooklyn, struggling with knee issues, but he's been tremendous over the current campaign. The Nets are one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference, climbing all the way to sixth place at 26-23, and Russell is their best player.
Johnson didn't believe in Russell as a leader, but he would have fit well next to Ball in the Lakers backcourt. Both are willing playmakers, and Russell's shooting would have complemented James nicely. The Lakers also wanted to get out of Mozgov's deal, but since they didn't land George or another star, they still would have had enough salary-cap space to sign James without the Brooklyn deal.
The Lakers would also have had enough spending power to bring in Caldwell-Pope in 2017 to build the relationship that helped lead to James. But would they have paid Caldwell-Pope almost $18 million to come off the bench?
Also, the Lakers most likely still draft Kuzma at No. 28 but lose out on Hart. Russell will be a restricted free agent this summer, taking up $21 million of the Nets' cap space unsigned.
If the Lakers were still focused on adding a second max player to James in July 2019, Mozgov ($16.7 million) and Russell would be a serious impediment. Even if they were able to find a separate taker for Mozgov, Russell's cap hold would limit them to under $20 million in cap space.
Verdict: Johnson gave up too early on Russell. Arguably, Ingram should have been sacrificed instead. In the end, the primary goal was to get James, and the Lakers succeeded, so the Brooklyn trade lands on the positive side of the ledger. If the Lakers sign another superstar this summer, the Russell trade becomes even more justified.
Although, in an alternate universe, Russell could have been a valuable trade piece for the Lakers to acquire Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans.
Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.
The Lakers sent Clarkson and Nance to the Cleveland Cavaliers at last February's trade deadline. Together, they helped James advance to the NBA Finals, where Cleveland fell short again to the Golden State Warriors.
Clarkson's $12.5 million salary for 2018-19 was in the way of the Lakers' free-agent goals. Since they didn't land two stars in 2018, that extra money essentially went to re-sign Caldwell-Pope (again, which may have helped secure James).
Nance has since signed a four-year, $44.8 million extension with the Cavaliers. This season, he's averaging 8.8 points and 7.5 rebounds per game as a productive role player. Clarkson is contributing a career-high 16.7 points per game, but without James (and Kevin Love out with injury), Cleveland is a woeful 9-40.
The Lakers also got back Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the 25th overall pick in 2018 used on Moritz Wagner. Thomas helped the Lakers win some games before succumbing to a hip injury that still has him sidelined. Frye went back to Cleveland this past summer as a free agent. Wagner has yet to establish himself midway through his rookie campaign.
Verdict: A winner, contingent on finding another star via trade or through cap space. Otherwise, the Lakers let two solid contributors leave for Wagner. If Los Angeles needed to make one of the Nets or the Cavaliers trades to sign James, but not both, the Cleveland deal is the winner hands down.
With both the Nets and Cavaliers trades completed, and with James committing to Los Angeles, the Lakers could have kept Randle as a restricted free agent. Instead, they revoked his qualifying offer to let him sign a two-year, $17.7 million contract with the Pelicans, where he's averaging 19.9 points and 9.3 rebounds per game.
Few teams had cap room this past summer, and Randle wasn't going to get more than the $8.6 million mid-level exception. It's his $9.1 million player option with New Orleans for 2019-20 that made the deal viable. He's expected to opt out before July to explore unrestricted free agency when more teams project to have cap space than a year ago.
The Lakers probably could have kept Randle for a single season at his $5.6 million qualifying offer since an offer sheet to a restricted free agent must be at least three years.
Losing $3.5 million to stay for one year with the Lakers would have made economic sense instead of signing a below-market, three-year contract with another team, starting at $8.5 million. Instead, Randle can look to get paid up to $27.3 million this summer, and that's just in the first year of a deal.
The Lakers would have missed out on Michael Beasley, but Randle is the better player. After one year, Randle would take up $10.6 million of the team's cap room as a free agent, but he'd have the power to sign with any team.
Also, if a player stays for one year on a qualifying offer, he has trade veto power. Keeping Randle and then trading him before the deadline would only work if he approved such a deal.
Verdict: The Lakers should have kept Randle. He would have been a viable small-ball center option and long-term fallback if the Lakers struck out on a bigger star.
The decision was up to Lopez, but the Lakers could have paid him their $4.4 million room exception in July. Instead, he signed with the Milwaukee Bucks for $3.4 million.
With the Bucks, Lopez is averaging 12.1 points per game while shooting 38.2 percent from three-point range (on 6.6 attempts). He's also blocking 2.1 shots per night on a team that has the best record in the NBA at 34-12.
Instead, that money went to Beasley, who has been solid in January but didn't contribute much earlier in the season while dealing with family issues. The Lakers have also gotten production from JaVale McGee, Tyson Chandler and Ivica Zubac.
Verdict: The Lakers should have endeavored to sign both Lopez and McGee. Chandler was a non-issue over the offseason, under contract at the time with the Phoenix Suns.
Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler
Both All-Stars were on the trade block. Both were dealt, but not to Los Angeles. The Toronto Raptors landed Leonard, primarily for DeMar DeRozan; the Philadelphia 76ers traded Robert Covington and Dario Saric for Butler (among other minor moving pieces).
The Lakers weren't willing to include Ingram in any deal, counting on either their salary-cap flexibility this coming summer or in dealing Ingram to the Pelicans as the main piece in a Davis deal.
Verdict: TBD. Until Johnson and Pelinka either succeed or fail in landing another star next to James, it's too early to decide if the Lakers blew it by holding onto Ingram and other youthful considerations. Perhaps neither Leonard nor Butler was even attainable for what Los Angeles could have offered.
As is, the Lakers have enough salary-cap space to pay either Leonard or Butler this summer while keeping Ingram, who may still develop into a high-level contributor.
It's always a lot easier to look backward than forward. Landing James was a home run, but the Lakers need more if they want to compete for a title.
They may get that done in the next couple of weeks or over the summer. Or maybe they completely misread the market throughout the process.
The early returns aren't great, but the Lakers made it clear they need another year to build a contender with James. The team will improve once he's healthy—the prognosis remains intriguing yet unclear.