Editor’s note: This is the Monday, Dec. 26, edition of the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.
DALLAS — There was a time when LeBron James’ words could send shockwaves through the league. It wasn’t even that long ago.
On Feb. 3, 2018, James’ Cleveland Cavaliers were humiliated – buried by the Houston Rockets by 32 points. It was meant to be a head-to-head of two teams with a reasonable shot to vie for the title that season. It highlighted Cleveland’s shortcomings, especially with offseason additions Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder.
“We’re 0-8 on national television,” James told reporters at the time. “They should take us off of every nationally televised game for the rest of the season.”
Five days later, the team was wholly remade: Thomas, Crowder, Dwyane Wade (James’ best friend from the Miami Heat!), and Channing Frye were all gone, replaced by players like Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Rodney Hood and George Hill. James had given the signal, and the Cleveland front office understood change was necessary even though the team had a winning record. Perhaps most importantly, the strain that Thomas’ arrival in Cleveland had caused was shipped west, and the Cavaliers got needed buy-in from James to will them back to the NBA Finals (though they were swept by the Golden State Warriors).
That was almost five years ago. Then, James would go on to average 27.5 points, 9.1 assists and 8.6 rebounds while shooting a 59% effective field goal percentage.
Through 33 Lakers games this season, James is averaging 27.8 points, 6.6 assists and 8.1 rebounds while shooting a 54.5% effective field goal percentage. The fourt-time league MVP is not the player he once was, but he is still a great one. And his calls for help are falling on deaf ears.
Since literally the opening night of the season, James has been critical of the roster. Here are some of his greatest hits this season:
– “I mean, to be completely honest, we’re not a team that’s constructed of great shooting. And that’s just what the truth of the matter is. It’s not like we’re sitting here with a lot of lasers on our team.”
– “We can’t shoot a penny in the ocean.”
– “Definitely not comparing us to (Milwaukee). That is a well-oiled machine. That group has been playing together for quite a while – got so many minutes logged, so many games logged. We’re not there.”
– “We’re already a team without a lot of length and not a lot of size. And you lose a 6-11 guy with a 7-6 wingspan, 7-7 wingspan, I mean, it’s self-explanatory, so it’s not like it’s rocket science.”
– “I look at it the other way too, like, how many times are you going to try to dig yourselves out until it’s too much dirt on you?”
James is often subtle. But taken together, the sentiment might as well be blaring from a horn on high. This team is embattled. The roster doesn’t have the tools around him that he’s had in the past. And for the 37-year-old – who has now scored at least 30 points in his last seven appearances – trying to keep the group competitive is exhausting, and the results simply aren’t showing up.
While Coach Darvin Ham has talked about the Lakers going through periods “of discovery,” the discovery period on this team is effectively over: They haven’t even been in a play-in slot since the season began thanks to their 2-10 start. Anthony Davis’ injury has been an impossible hump to overcome, but Davis has been injured for a significant stretch in each of the two previous seasons – the possibility of another injury had to be anticipated. From winning a title two years ago, the Lakers’ roster is now populated with unproven players who are fighting to stay in the league or past-their-prime players who have struggled to adapt to new roles.
The Lakers aren’t good enough to win a championship. They might not be good enough to make the playoffs if Davis is out for a full month or more. The Lakers don’t even need to hear it from James – anyone with eyes can see this.
So what is being done about that? How are the Lakers fulfilling General Manager Rob Pelinka’s stated goal of winning around James, who signed a contract extension that puts him on track to finish his career with the franchise?
“We will do everything we can, (draft) picks included, to make deals to give us a chance to help LeBron get to the end,” Pelinka said in September. “He committed to our organization. That’s gotta be a bilateral commitment, and it’s there.”
The Lakers owe a lot to James. In spite of a winning legacy that well preceded him, the franchise was caught in the doldrums of mediocrity, enduring five seasons without a postseason berth before his arrival. It’s now widely accepted that the Lakers failed to build around James well in that first season with non-shooting free agents, leading to a sixth season out of the playoffs. But once the franchise traded for James’ preferred teammate (an idea he virtually spoke into existence) they just so happened to win a championship. (Many will point to the foothold players such as Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and some of the other young Lakers have found in the league – but Lonzo Ball’s ailing health might counter-balance some of those points that the franchise overpaid for Davis, who was and is one of the league’s most talented big men.)
That’s always been the social contract with James since his Miami days: He can be difficult, passive-aggressive and demanding, but those who have adhered to his whims have often found themselves standing atop the league. And thanks to James’ efforts, the Lakers got back to where they always believed they belonged.
That faith has not been paid down, however, with savvy moves. And while James must accept some responsibility for – at the very least – some tacit approval of the front office’s strategy, the messaging out of the front office since the summer has been that the Lakers must balance the priorities of the present with having a future ahead. The latest came Monday with a report from The Athletic: “It becomes increasingly challenging to justify trading a first-round pick if the group continues to struggle. The front office doesn’t want to compound its previous mistakes with more win-now moves.”
Since when has that ever been the Lakers’ franchise vision? When have they ever stopped swinging for a competitive team in their history before the last decade that has largely been disappointing? And certainly, there hasn’t been a Lakers roster with a player of James’ talent that has set its sights so low – in this case, potentially accepting missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season without trading for a meaningful piece.
With respect to New York’s Cam Reddish, who has reportedly been a player of interest for the Lakers, how does a 23-year-old wing who hasn’t cracked the rotation with the Atlanta Hawks or Knicks get a team closer to contention? Maybe the Lakers have determined there is no trade (or series of trades) that gets them to contending status – but if they really thought that, maybe they shouldn’t have made that exact promise as recently as September.
James’ relationship with the front office has felt strained for some time. There was discomfort throughout the organization during his first season in L.A., when he publicly endorsed the idea of playing with Davis. The Lakers didn’t make a move at the deadline in his third season, though James’ and Davis’ injuries that year might have made them skittish. James called out the roster as loudly as possible in February, saying that the Lakers couldn’t reach the Milwaukee Bucks (then the defending champions) at their competitive level. Over the summer, the chances of James reuniting with Kyrie Irving seemed like a possibility (even if the reality was much more distant for the Brooklyn Nets, who seemed unwilling to actually trade him).
None of these resulted in moves that affected the team in that particular season. It seems telling that James’ latest subtle criticisms of the roster have barely made a blip on the national basketball landscape, perhaps because it doesn’t seem like that makes any difference with this front office.
In the last three seasons, the roster has only bled talent. The front office’s trades have largely harmed the team’s competitiveness and put more load on James, whose ability to single-handedly influence winning is waning. Instead of half-measures, the Lakers have lately resorted to no measures at all, and now seem less willing to do anything in a season when there is absolutely no incentive to tank. While there are fans who agree with that decision, there are many who are frustrated that the franchise would resign itself to let one of the greatest players of all time chase a hallowed record amid another dreadful season. If the team were to make a competitive move to at least give James and a healthy Davis a chance, they might find an audience willing to accept the consequences of the sell-out approach, for better or for worse.
Back in April, Pelinka raised eyebrows after firing Coach Frank Vogel and being asked about the shortcomings of the roster: “I think today is not gonna be a day of finger-pointing or unwinding all of the specific reasons.”
While Pelinka said that he took “ownership” of basketball decisions, that day of public accounting has never come. What exactly have the Lakers been doing wrong? Why does the process not seem to be improving? The basketball world has its own answers to these questions, but it’s unclear how honest the front office and ownership have been in their assessment. After word leaked about Pelinka’s contract extension over the summer to tie his future to Ham’s, team governor Jeanie Buss seemed more cross that it had been divulged rather than processing why many fans were disappointed by the decision.
Whatever James’ role has been in shaping the roster around him, he’s paying for his part nightly – playing big minutes in the late chapters of his career, driving on without his favored co-star and losing a lot of games. He hasn’t stopped signaling that he doesn’t believe the Lakers aren’t good enough, but at times in his press conferences, there has been a glassy-eyed acceptance in his comments, too.
“I’m just trying to control what I can control,” he said Sunday after the team gave up 51 points in the third quarter to the Dallas Mavericks. “I show up, try to lead these guys and try to lead to victories and obviously there’s been times when it’s been frustrating. There’s been times that I’ve been happy. There’s been times where I’ve been like, ‘OK, we can do better here,’ or whatever the case may be. But I always try to stay even-keeled. There’s ways that we can be better. There’s some things that we’re good at. There’s some things that we’re not very good at.”
Winning. The Lakers are not very good at winning. And James, of all people, is a good judge.
– Kyle Goon
Editor’s note: Thanks for reading the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.