By Conrad Hoyt
Published: March 20th, 2019
The day is May 31, 2018.
It is game one of the NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. The game is tied at 107. With 4.7 seconds left, J.R. Smith grabs the rebound off a missed free throw and runs to the center of the court instead of getting a shot off. At that moment, a meme was born, the Cavs’ greatest chance to steal a game was over and LeBron James had his eyes more firmly than ever set on Los Angeles and wearing the illustrious purple and gold.
Roughly one month later, James joined the Los Angeles Lakers. This was a big move. The Lakers were starving for a playoff birth, James was still widely regarded as the best player on earth, and every big name who had ever played for the Lakers had won a ring. Expectations were high.
Whether you are a fan of the Lakers or not, you cannot deny this season has been a tumultuous one. The offseason signings after James have not panned out, Luke Walton’s rotations can only be called questionable at best, and injuries have derailed their momentum at every turn.
Now we should get to the young players. James was set to join a young core of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma. Ball had an up and down rookie season, showing promise with his defense and playmaking, while also bricking more shots than Shaquille O’Neal in a snowstorm. Brandon Ingram was fresh off a solid sophomore campaign, and many people were expecting him to make the big leap this season, potentially into an all-star. Kuzma had a great rookie year showing off his scoring ability, especially as a steal at number 27 in the 2017 NBA Draft.
James has averaged 27 points, seven rebounds and seven assists over the first 15 years of his career. Miraculously, this season, he is averaging 27 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists. With the exception of foul shooting, he has been consistent all season long and put up numbers that are among the best of his illustrious career.
Still, he has not been good enough.
From the start of the season, James did not live up to expectations as a leader, be it with defensive effort, free throws, or overall off-court leadership duties. He arrived in Los Angeles and started or continued working on many projects outside of basketball, including HBO’s The Shop, Space Jam 2, and A&R’ing rapper 2 Chainz’s newest album, “Rap or Go to the League”. It is not as if these projects have directly affected his play, but it sets a bad example to his teammates when he is involved with so many other things.
The trade deadline did not help, with the front office of the New Orleans Pelicans leaking that the Lakers offered four young players, two veterans, and two lottery picks for Anthony Davis. A player of Davis’ talent may warrant such a king’s ransom, but this was not the right way for the Lakers to go about business. Most of all, the catalyst for the Lakers downfall was James’ groin injury, which kept him out for 18 games and shot the team down from the tantalizing home court advantage of the fourth seed to the doldrums of the eleventh seed.
One saving grace looked like it would be the play of Ingram, who, after the all-star break, averaged 27.8 points per game over a six-game stretch. At a point where the Lakers were free falling, no one would have shamed Ingram for mailing the season in, but he remained resilient and put forth the best stretch of his career.
On March 9, 2019, the Lakers announced that Ingram is expected to miss the remainder of the season with Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) in his right arm. DVT is a potentially serious medical condition that forced James’ old teammate, Chris Bosh, into early retirement. Ball is also out for the remainder of the season with an ankle injury. This presents problems for the Lakers in regards to assembling a trade package for Davis or another top-tier player.
Things look very grim for the Lakers at the moment, it is undeniable. The Lakers wasted a year of James’ prime and, even for him, a player’s prime does not last forever. The Lakers must reshape their roster to the James system: surround him with shooters and good defenders. From top to bottom of the organization, everyone needs to look at themselves and how they can be better. Then, and only then, will the Lakers achieve the success that the most storied franchise of the NBA expects.