Lakers Approaching Historic Disappointment in LeBron's First Season

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterMarch 29, 2019

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James (23) during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Sacramento Kings Sunday, March 24, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — The 2018-19 Los Angeles Lakers have been a disaster.

Signing LeBron James, arguably the best player in the league, should have led to a deep playoff run—or at least a return to the postseason. Instead, James suffered a groin injury on Christmas Day, and L.A. never recovered.

A team with James on the roster shouldn't be anywhere near the lottery, but that's where the Lakers find themselves. Team president Earvin "Magic" Johnson needs to have another strong summer; otherwise, he risks turning one of the greatest signings in NBA history into a botched experiment under the league's most intense spotlight.  

Johnson will have significant spending power to try to sign a top star like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving or Klay Thompson. The Lakers may also still be front-runners in the trade hunt for New Orleans Pelicans All-Star big man Anthony Davis.

Land a big offseason haul, and the current fiasco will be look like an unpleasant means to a better end. After all, Johnson preached patience last summer.

But if the Lakers' cannot build a contender around James moving forward, the 2018-19 season will climb the franchise's all-time disappointment scale. That's what happens when greatness is a baseline for success, as has been the case for the Lakers throughout their storied history. 

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Nash and Howard Flop, Kobe Goes Down

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Back in 2012, the Lakers acquired Steve Nash in July and Dwight Howard in August, both via trade. Los Angeles gave up what amounted to two first-round picks and three second-rounders to team up Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol with Nash and Howard.

On paper, the Lakers were supposed to be top contenders.

At the time, ESPN's Stephen A. Smith tweeted: "Barring any last-minute snag, D-Howard will be a Laker by tomorrow. [Andrew] Bynum will be in Philly. And we'll all expect a Lakers/Heat Finals." 

Howard and Nash were famously featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated's NBA preview with the headline, "Now this is going to be FUN."

However, the season was anything but fun. Howard, who was set to become a free agent in the summer of 2013, refused to discuss his future from his first moments as a Laker. That led to reporters regularly asking him about his plans, which created an uneasiness between Howard, the media and the team's fanbase.

After an 0-8 preseason and a 1-4 start, the Lakers fired head coach Mike Brown. Nash suffered a leg injury in the team's second game which led to significant back problems that would plague him for the rest of his career into retirement.

The Lakers brought Mike D'Antoni in to replace Brown, but he had to limp into his introductory press conference after knee replacement surgery. An omen of things to come, Howard soon injured his shoulder. Gasol suffered a concussion (five games) and then lost 20 games to a foot injury. Metta World Peace somehow missed only six games after tearing the meniscus in his left knee, but others like Steve Blake, Jordan Hill and Nash missed significant time.

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 26:  Darius Morris #1, Metta World Peace #15, Steve Nash #10 and Steve Blake #5 of the Los Angeles Lakers sit on the bench during the game against the San Antonio Spurs at Staples Center in Game Three of the Western Conference Quar
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Still, Bryant was sensational, averaging 27.3 points per game, and the Lakers (45-37) were coming together as the playoffs neared until that fateful game against the Golden State Warriors on April 12, 2013, when he tore his left Achilles tendon. He was never the same, eventually retiring in 2016 as the franchise muddled through the rebuilding process. 

The Lakers finished the season with Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock as the starting backcourt against the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs. Howard was ejected in the fourth and final game, his last moments in a Lakers uniform, and he signed with the Houston Rockets a few months later.

Losing to the Spurs paled to the loss of Bryant in what signified the end of an era. The franchise also lost its longtime owner, Dr. Jerry Buss, making 2013 a true turning point for the Lakers.

"I would say 2013 was the most disappointing," a Lakers executive said. "It led to the recent string [of lottery seasons]. The Kobe injury and [Dr. Buss] passing away, that was the end of an era."

              

Malone and Payton; Detroit Wins in the Finals

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 8: Karl Malone #11, Gary Payton #20 and Kobe Bryant #8 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on in Game two of the 2004 NBA Finals against the Detroit Pistons   June 8, 2004 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User ex
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Prior to 2013, the Lakers were so successful that their failures needed to be measured on a different scale. The 2003-04 season would be a win for most franchises, seeing as the Lakers advanced to the NBA Finals. Getting all the way to the championship series, three games away from a title only to lose, was devastating to the team.

It proved to have lasting repercussions.

The additions of veteran All-Stars Karl Malone and Gary Payton were supposed to give new life to the Shaquille O'Neal/Bryant tandem. Initially, the group looked unstoppable, but Malone suffered a knee injury that knocked him out for 39 games. He recovered for the playoffs but wore down to the point that he couldn't play late in the series against the Detroit Pistons.

"Losing to Detroit was the end of [a different] era," the executive said. 

With the loss, it became clear that O'Neal and Bryant could no longer coexist. The team felt it had to choose between giving O'Neal an extension, which would have led to Bryant's departure as a free agent, or trading O'Neal outright. L.A. chose the latter, sending the legendary center to the Miami Heat.

The Lakers didn't retain head coach Phil Jackson, and they missed the playoffs the following year. O'Neal and the Heat went on to win the 2005-06 championship.

                

Losing to the Celtics in 2008

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Fortunately for the Lakers, the lull was short-lived, but it was a tenuous period. After the 2006-07 season, Bryant demanded a trade following a five-game first-round playoff loss to the Phoenix Suns. Soon after, he was caught in a leaked video complaining that the Lakers wouldn't trade Andrew Bynum for Jason Kidd.

Jerry Buss chose not to deal Bryant, and Bynum began to flourish until he suffered a serious knee injury. In February, Los Angeles acquired Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies, setting up a two-championship run.

Unfortunately for the Lakers, the 2007-08 season finished just like the 2003-04 campaign. They got to the NBA Finals only to lose to the rival Boston Celtics in six games.

"I remember when we were losing, they played that Journey song [Don't Stop Believin'], and the whole arena started singing," Kobe Bryant told Mike Bresnahan, formerly with the Los Angeles Times. "I hated that song for two years. I listened to the song every single day just to remind me of that feeling. Same thing with the Dropkick Murphys—I listened to the Dropkick Murphys all the time just because I wanted to remember that feeling."

The Lakers had lost the first two games in Boston. After a Game 3 win, Los Angeles pulled ahead at home by 24 points only to lose by six in one of the team's most devastating collapses of all time.

Bryant seemed angry for a year straight, but the Lakers were able to return to the Finals the next June to defeat the Orlando Magic. Bryant and the Lakers then got revenge over the Celtics in a Game 7 slugfest for the 2009-10 title.

"Losing to the Celtics in 2008 was a terrible way to end the season, but that year was a ton of fun, as they outperformed expectations behind Bynum's emergence and the midseason trade of Gasol," video analyst Pete Zayas said.

"It sucked, sure, but we [only made it to] the first round the year before," the executive said. "Making the Finals was a success to get Kobe away from his trade request."

                       

Summer of 2016

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 12: Timofey Mozgov #20 and Luol Deng #9 of the Los Angeles Lakers talk during the game against the Sacramento Kings on December 12, 2016 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
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As Bryant's career wound down, the Lakers began to hoard cap space to chase star free agents like Kevin Durant and James. However, they never even got an audience with the big stars.

Instead, the team agreed to terms with Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov on four-year, $72 million and $64 million contracts, respectively.

Those deals ended up setting the franchise back for many years.

Neither were impact players. The Lakers couldn't lure stars with their available cap space, so instead of being patient and waiting a year, they spent it on two aging role players who didn't fit with the team's young core.

"I never expected the Lakers to land a star after a 17-win season, but I didn't expect Mozgov and Deng, either," Zayas said. "I spent much of that summer trying to talk myself into that not being a terrible idea." 

The Lakers eventually traded Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets, but it cost them D'Angelo Russell, who earned his first All-Star berth in February. They bought Deng out this past summer, and he will take up $5 million of their cap space for the next three seasons.

The Lakers have let go of a lot of young talent in recent years such as Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Ivica Zubac, Thomas Bryant and Jordan Clarkson. They also traded perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams to the Rockets for Corey Brewer and a late first-round pick.

Most of those decisions, if not all, were designed to protect the Lakers' cap space to go star hunting.

Those mistakes led co-owner Jeanie Buss to let both general manager Mitch Kupchak and her brother, executive vice president Jim Buss, go in February 2017. She hired Johnson before that year's trade deadline.

The buildup: Who would they get with their cap room in 2016?

The disappointing answer: Deng and Mozgov.

The Lakers are still trying to recover years later, even after signing James.

                 

Pre-Century History

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The initial O'Neal/Bryant years ended in playoff failure until the team hired Jackson before the 1999-00 season.

Johnson's abrupt retirement devastated the NBA in 1991 after he announced he had contracted HIV. At the time, a positive test was considered a death sentence.

Other NBA Finals losses stand out, including the 1989 sweep by the Pistons after Byron Scott and Johnson both suffered hamstring injuries. The team also lost in 1991 to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in five games. 

Los Angeles fell in back-to-back Finals in 1983 (Philadelphia 76ers) and 1984 (Celtics). Of course, there's the Jerry West run that led to a championship in 1972, but not before losses in many championship series (1962, 1963, 1965, 1966, 1968 and 1969)—all to the Celtics. Then they fell in 1970 to the New York Knicks.

                     

2018-19: The 'Least Enjoyable' Season

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

The current Lakers may be as disappointing relative to expectations as any of the teams listed above. In five months, L.A. went from owning the fifth-best title odds to owning the league's 10th-worst record.

As of this writing, their 33-41 record sandwiches them between a Minnesota Timberwolves team (33-41) that was forced to trade away Jimmy Butler early in the season and the Pelicans (31-45), who famously outlasted L.A. in the Great Anthony Davis Battle ahead of the 2019 trade deadline.  

"This season was just one gut punch after another," Zayas said. "It wasn't the most disappointing season I've experienced, but it's arguably the least enjoyable of any season that didn't implicitly involve tanking for most of it."

For fans frustrated by the 2018-19 squad, the good news is that the season is almost over. It effectively came to an end when Los Angeles was mathematically eliminated from the playoffs on March 22, but like in 2018, it's now once again all about the offseason. 

That's where the Lakers can prove James wasn't the end-all-be-all solutionthat there's more to come as far as stars and championship contention are concerned.

Starting this summer, Johnson will be on the clock to build a true contender around James. Otherwise, he risks going from "least enjoyable" season to one of the biggest disappointments in franchise history.

                   

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.