Who's to Blame for Lakers Spiraling out of Playoff Contention?March 5, 2019
LOS ANGELES — Who gets the blame for the Lakers' disappointing, lottery-bound 2018-19 campaign?
Where to start?
Some of the wounds were self-inflicted, others the result of terrible luck. Now, with 18 games left, the Lakers are better off sitting LeBron James (call it a re-strained groin), Kyle Kuzma (ankle), Brandon Ingram (shoulder) and Lonzo Ball (ankle) to chase a higher draft pick in the 2019 lottery—embrace the inevitable tank to the bottom.
With the Lakers' 113-105 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, whatever glimmer of playoff hope remaining was extinguished.
What went wrong?
On Christmas Day, the Lakers got one of their biggest wins of the season with a 127-101 victory in Golden State. Improving to 20-14 after an 0-3 start, they were flirting with home-court advantage in the first round. But the year came to a crashing halt in that fateful third quarter when James strained his groin. The team would go on to win just six of 18 games with him out of the lineup.
But that was just one of the many injury setbacks the Lakers faced.
Only Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been healthy for all 64 games. Ball has logged just 47 games. Rajon Rondo broke his hand not once but twice (technically one was a finger injury). Ingram missed a dozen games (ankle, shoulder and fist, as in suspension for throwing a punch). Others, like Tyson Chandler, Josh Hart, JaVale McGee and Kuzma, have been limited at times as well.
There are many fingers to point, but more than anything, the season was derailed by injuries. The Lakers have a good but not great roster, one that never had a chance to play at full strength.
Predictably Underwhelming Shooting
The Lakers were a good defensive team when healthy, bad when injured, and generally horrible without Ball. James and Rondo seemed to be saving nearly all their energy for the offensive end, at least over the last month.
On paper, the Lakers weren't going to be a good shooting team, but Caldwell-Pope's 34 percent clip from three has been a disappointment. James has made a career out of getting his teammates wide-open looks from deep, but Los Angeles struggled to convert consistently. Hart has shot 33.5 percent, Ingram 33 percent, Ball 32.9 percent and Kuzma just 31.2 percent.
Both Ingram and Kuzma have had generally successful seasons, averaging over 18 points per game each. Along with James' 27 points per game, the Lakers have put points on the board, but the team can't get enough stops to close out tight games.
This led to costly losses against lottery-bound teams like the Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks, Washington Wizards and Phoenix Suns.
No Value Added by the Coaching Staff
If a team isn't living up to its potential, the blame is typically placed on the head coach.
Luke Walton didn't make the best out of a bad situation. Yes, his team was hampered by injuries, but a number of coaches face similar issues. The Indiana Pacers lost their best player in Victor Oladipo, and yet they're still one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
It's not Walton's fault that his main playmakers (James, Ball, Rondo and Ingram) all lost significant time, but the Lakers would still be in the playoff hunt had they beaten bad teams consistently. Even short-handed, Los Angeles should have at least another five wins on its record.
Be it offensive creativity, defensive guidance or rotational stability, Walton and his staff couldn't elevate the Lakers through a difficult season.
Given President Earvin "Magic" Johnson was hired after Walton was brought on by the previous regime, the coaching position was always tenuous.
Johnson came down hard on Walton after the team's slow start, and buzz around the league suggests James will want someone he knows well and trusts like Tyronn Lue on the Lakers' bench next season.
A Roster That Only Got Worse
Given Los Angeles was a strong team before the injuries, the roster shortcomings shouldn't be overstated.
Looking at the big picture, Johnson mapped out a plan for two stars leading up to landing James. Spurned by Paul George this past summer, Johnson fielded a team of placeholders until the Lakers could add a second star this summer, either via trade (Anthony Davis, etc.) or free agency.
But those placeholders—most notably Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley and Rondo—haven't been enough.
The Lakers obviously lacked shooting and a backup center to start the season. Johnson eventually rectified the latter by signing Chandler, but the big man has struggled to stay healthy. Then Johnson traded Ivica Zubac to the Clippers, who are competing for a playoff spot, for a big shooter in Mike Muscala, who is averaging just 10.8 minutes per game with the Lakers.
For a team with issues at center, struggling defensively and not nearly as effective a small-ball team as originally hoped, trading the 21-year-old Zubac—who helped the Lakers get some of their big wins this season against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans—was ill-advised.
It didn't help chemistry, it didn't help depth and it strengthened the Clippers, who are gradually looking like a playoff lock instead of the Lakers.
The two-star masterplan has been a work in progress for some time now, and Johnson has let a lot of good, young talent leave the franchise in the name of star power. He may still prove to be in the right if he can complete the task this offseason.
In the meantime, even with James, the early returns are not promising.
Midseason Chemistry Torpedo
Johnson's full-on pursuit of Davis sucked the life out of the Lakers. How exactly can Walton be expected to build a foundation of trust when the team's president is offering roughly half the roster to the Pelicans?
Had Johnson refuted the rumors, perhaps the Lakers are still in the playoff hunt. Maybe not, considering the poor injury luck. But they seemed to stop playing right around the trade deadline, especially defensively.
Going after Davis was the right move. Failing to land him without publicly denouncing the rumors (even if that required Johnson to outright lie to the media, something basketball executives are known to do from time to time) destroyed whatever chemistry L.A. had.
Owner Jeanie Buss denounced the Davis rumors as "fake news" in Boston at the MIT/Sloan Analytics Conference this past weekend, but that message (true or false) should have been pushed out to the public a month ago.
And even still, if the Lakers do land Davis this summer, and possibly a third star, then the 2018-19 season will be remembered as a disappointing but necessary stepping stone.
The Lakers didn't have the roster to handle the sort of adversity teams can expect in an 82-game season. Walton, whose position was undermined throughout most of the year, didn't elevate the team to be greater than the sum of its parts.
The front office didn't even go through the motions of telling courtesy lies at the deadline to at least try to pretend trade talks never happened. The Lakers players never came together after that. The necessary fight all teams need to push through a long, arduous season was lost.
Johnson and the front office deserve a lot of the blame, but so too does James and his agent Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, as Paul was the driving force demanding his client (Davis) be traded from the Pelicans.
The end result remains a mystery, but in the meantime, the 2018-19 Lakers will go down as a disappointment. Everyone is to blame, but much will be forgiven if Johnson can turn the recent spate of bad will into a superteam this summer.
Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.