The Los Angeles Lakers are out of the playoffs, have fired their coach, and continue to be the most disappointing team in the league. Outside of the bubble season, they’ve wasted the last four years with LeBron James.
Because it’s the Lakers, there will be no looking inward. Frank Vogel was unceremoniously let go, and the articles about Russell Westbrook being a bad teammate have come pouring out. It’s embarrassing. This is not a team that does self-reflection well.
Rob Pelinka will continue to keep his job, as well as everybody with the last name Buss littered throughout his staff. Even though deep down, they know they’re the ones responsible for this disaster. Well, them and LeBron.
The LeBron James Los Angeles Lakers Era Has Been a Failure
People will argue that James’ tenure with the Lakers cannot be considered a failure because they won a title. However, unlike his title with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the first in 52 years, 3-1 comeback against the 72 win Warriors, or his two with the Miami Heat, where they almost broke the win streak record and had a remarkable comeback against the San Antonio Spurs, there’s nothing memorable about the Lakers bubble title. It’s a blip during a mediocre, ten-year Lakers stretch.
The Lakers missed the playoffs two out of four seasons with James and were bounced out of the first round last season. You have the best player of the past 25 years on the NBA’s most storied franchise, and those are the results? That’s failure.
How Did We Get Here?
Like most major problems in history, it started before we even knew we should be looking. The Lakers issues stem from the fact it’s run like a family business. They had so much success with Dr. Jerry Buss running the franchise that way they’ve now become the poster child for nepotism. Look at their RealGM front office page and count how many times you see the Buss name. And when it’s not Buss, it’s Rob Pelinka (Kobe Bryant‘s former agent) or Linda and Kurt Rambis (Jeanie Buss’s lifelong friends). Talk about keeping it in the family! At this point, it wouldn’t surprise me if they rolled Phil Jackson back out for his turn at burying the franchise.
I don’t have the space to labor through the entire Jeanie Buss era, but we can cover the Rob Pelinka-LeBron James timeline and how they’ve ruined their roster and future.
The fun thing about having LeBron James on your team is you don’t know when it’s him pulling the strings or the GM. It sounds like James was the one who pushed for the Russell Westbrook trade that effectively emptied the Laker’s cupboards. Anybody who watches basketball should’ve known these two would mix like oil and water. They’re both ball-dominant playmakers, but Russ does not move off-ball at all. He sets up a tent, starts a fire, and camps out beyond the three-point line waiting for the ball to make its way back to him.
I like Westbrook, but you want the ball in his hands, surrounded by shooters to get the most out of him. Carmelo Anthony, James, Anthony Davis, Austin Reaves, and Talen Horton-Tucker are average to below-average shooters. Malik Monk is the only guy on their roster who’s consistently above average from three-point range, and he’s a sieve on defense. There’s no balance on this roster; LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the only ones who can do more than one thing, and James doesn’t defend anymore either.
The second half of the 2019-20 Houston Rockets season was the last time Russell Westbrook was truly successful. Two things to remember about Westbrook:
- His best trait is his top-flight athleticism and ability to get to the rim. When he grabs the rebound, sprints down the floor in a flash, and crashes towards the rim, that’s when your offense opens up.
- He’s a miserable shooter and shoddy defender. Unfortunately, he gambles too much on defense, and teams don’t fear him outside of the paint on offense.
So looking at that Rockets roster, what did they do to maximize Westbrook’s talent? They surrounded him with all “3 & D” guys! Robert Covington, P.J. Tucker, Austin Rivers, Danuel House Jr., Jeff Green, Ben McLemore, Eric Gordon, and James Harden are all average or above-average three-point shooters and plus defenders outside of Harden. That opened up the runway for Russ.
Compare that to the non-sensical garbage the Lakers trotted out this season. Who are the defenders that make up for the zero you’re getting from Westbrook, James, Anthony, and Monk? Anthony Davis? Rudy Gobert is the only center who’s expected to carry that many blah defenders, and he doesn’t have to do nearly as much on offense. Gobert can also stay on the court for more than half a season.
That’s before mentioning the fact that neither Russ nor LeBron gets to the basket as much as they used to. As their athleticism slowly declines, their penchant for taking long-range two’s has increased.
The Lakers spent around $33 million on free agents (seven veteran minimum contracts, $5.125m on Kendrick Nunn, and $10.25m retaining Horton-Tucker) and another $44 million to bring in Westbrook’s albatross contract. For much less, the Lakers could have mixed and matched contracts to bring in cheaper options, like Kyle Lowry or Lonzo Ball (or Kelly Oubre Jr, Patty Mills, Rudy Gay, etc.). This may have allowed them to keep Alex Caruso while still signing veteran-minimum players.
Or, the Lakers could have made the original trade for sharpshooter Buddy Hield. It was reported that the trade was Kyle Kuzma ($13m) and Montrezl Harrell ($9m) for Hield ($23M). Again, they could’ve kept Caruso while still signing the veteran-minimum players if they did that. The Lakers went with the only option that tanked their ability to have players on the court who could both shoot and defend. Impressive.
Frank Vogel was not the problem. He’s not a diverse scheme coach like Erik Spoelstra or Nick Nurse are, but he’s a phenomenal defensive specialist. The Lakers already knew this. They saw how good he was at coaching defense firsthand, when he coached them to a championship!
The disrespect shown to Vogel on his way out the door is another shining example of Lakers exceptionalism. He literally found out he was fired from a tweet before coaching his last game. Brutal.
You gave an Italian chef ketchup, canned mushrooms, kraft dinner, and spam, then fired him cause he couldn’t make lasagna. Meanwhile, you didn’t put a single tomato in the pantry and can’t figure out what went wrong. If they didn’t play in the same state as Sacramento, this would be the most incompetent front office in the western conference.
On the court, LeBron James is the most incredible teammate of all time. He will always do what it takes to win. If you’re open, you’ll get the ball; he’ll put you in a position to succeed. On the court.
Off the court? Everybody in your program is on eggshells. From the last guy on the bench to the president of basketball operations, it’s his world, and you’re living in it. He wants you to make a move to win a championship right now. There is no wait and see; you don’t get a chance to evaluate your roster before King James demands a shakeup.
From LeBron James’ point of view, it kind of makes sense. The Cavs wasted his first seven years continually surrounding him with garbage. Then the basketball world called him a choker when he couldn’t deliver. His front office failed him, and the fans thought he was to blame. That’s not an envious position to be in.
But LeBron James doesn’t just ask that you move heaven and Earth for win-now pieces. He asks you to do that while not telling you his plan. He wants you to mortgage your entire future while he won’t commit to a second date. It’s never a two-way street with James.
It’s irritating cause LeBron James deserves most of the respect he gets. He’s the best player I’ve ever seen play basketball. He’s an oracle on the court; he sees everything. In the community, he donates millions, tries to be a good role model, etc. But, the constant passive-aggressiveness on social media, walking off the court during games, standing around on defense, and sitting away from his teammates makes it hard to say he’s a great teammate as of late.
Now the Lakers are all in on him, and he’s probably not a top-10 guy in the league anymore. This is uncharted territory. Since 2004, if LeBron James asked you to jump, you always answered how high cause he was the best or one of the best players in the league. For the first time since his rookie season, James has lost more games than he won as a starter. That counts for something; that means just he can’t drag teams to wins anymore the same way Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, or Nikola Jokic can.
If you’re the Lakers, you have to be asking yourself if the rest of the circus is worth it. Right?
Where The Lakers Go From Here
This offseason, the Lakers will be left with eight players under contract; two of them have player options. One of those guys is Russell Westbrook and his enormous $47 million contract. My crystal ball tells me he’s opting into that. That will leave them $40.2 million over the cap! Doesn’t leave much room for improvement.
What about packaging Westbrook with draft picks? The Lakers don’t own any of their picks until 2026. Even then, they can’t trade that pick due to league rules. Their 2027 and 2029 first-round picks are the only ones currently available to trade. LeBron James’ modus operandi would be to trade those picks. He doesn’t care what happens to the franchise in 2027, much less 2029. He’ll be retired, and patience isn’t a virtue he’s ever had.
If you’re L.A. though, you have to be thinking, is LeBron still good enough to be the best player on a championship team?, Can Anthony Davis stay healthy for an entire season? and What the hell are we going to do about this Russell Westbrook contract? Meanwhile, LeBron James is probably wondering how he can get shipped back to Cleveland after they finally recovered from the smoldering mess he left them in four years ago.
No contract is untradeable. They will be able to move Westbrook, but I doubt the pieces they get back will be much better. The players might be better fits alongside James, but they’ll most likely be terrible contracts in their own right. That’s usually how these things work.
The best thing the Lakers could do is start trying to restock their cupboards. Both James and Westbrook are off the books after next season. James still has value, Anthony Davis still has value. Go get some draft capital; it’s the only way out. The L.A. Lakers don’t have enough assets to do anything other than disappoint again next season. Why waste the extra year? They should boot Rob Pelinka out of there too if they want any chance at finding a decent coach. After the way they treated Vogel, top coaching candidates aren’t lining up, begging to get thrown under the bus by Pelinka and LeBron James.
Is the Lakers LeBron Tenure a Failure?
Of course it is. The Lakers are getting by because they’re the Lakers, and they’re in Los Angeles. It should be the easiest GM job in all of sports.
Even when they get their salary cap back to a manageable position, and the next star from L.A. wants to play there, they’ll fail to put a cohesive team around him cause nobody in the organization knows anything about building a stable franchise. Lakers exceptionalism is a myth that no longer exists.