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The one thing that “bothers” LeBron James about the Lakers’ 2020-21 season

The Los Angeles Lakers 2020-21 season is over before it ever really, truly, got going.

That was how LeBron James’ framed it after he and his team’s injury-riddled season mercifully ended at the hands of Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns in Game 6 at Staples Center on Thursday, 113-100.

The Lakers’ season finale was emblematic of their frustrating, roller-coaster, and ultimately short-lived repeat quest. Anthony Davis gutted out five hobbled minutes before “re-aggravating” his groin strain, while LeBron (29/9/7) was productive but unable to dominate a scorching Suns team led by a lights-out Booker (47 points, 15-of-22 FG).

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope played (well) through a knee injury. Alex Caruso (ankle strain) left the game early. Andre Drummond, in his first non-start with the Lakers, was a DNP. Fitting.

In retrospect, a no. 7 seed, while unprecedented, was appropriate for the defending champions. A healthy Lakers unit still might be the most formidable team in basketball, but that was never in the cards for the 2020-21 group.

Afterward, James lamented what could’ve been.

“The season started so fast after leaving the bubble,” LeBron James said post-game. “I think I was talking to Wes (Matthews) in the locker room just a few minutes ago, and I said: The one thing that bothers me more than anything: we never really got an opportunity to see our full team at full strength, either because of injury, or COVID, or something going on with our ballclub this year. We could never really fully get into a rhythm and never really see the full potential of what we’re capable of.”

Following a historically short 71-day offseason, Los Angeles rolled to a 21-6 start as LeBron played MVP-level hoops. However, Anthony Davis never properly ramped up and struggled through a string of minor injuries before suffering the Achilles strain on Feb. 14 that cost him 30 contests. The Lakers’ season was never the same.

“Ultimately, the injuries that we faced were just too much,” Frank Vogel said after Game 6.

AD ā€” whose groin injury in Game 4 deflated the Los Angeles locker room for good ā€” tried his best to be there for his teammates facing elimination, but checked himself out after a few painful possessions.

“Obviously, he’s a warrior,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Tried to get out there and play through what we knew was going to be difficult for him to move. He did everything he could from a treatment standpoint to loosen it up, was hoping some in-game adrenaline would help with it.”

The Lakers remaining supporting cast was unable to step up and Los Angeles was, once more, ice-cold from three (10-of-35, just about at their series average of 28%) ā€” two more recurring themes of the season and brief playoff run.

The Lakers opened 7-of-27 from the field and fell into a 45-18 deficit. Conversely, the Suns hit six of their first seven triples, as Booker rolled to 22 points in the opening frame. Los Angeles showed some fighting spirit in the second half, cutting the Phoenix lead to 10 with roughly eight minutes to go.

At that point, James asked for a quick blow, and the lead ballooned back to 17 before James could make his way back to the scorer’s table. The Lakers’ ineptitude without James on the floor was yet another recurring trend of 2020-21.

“I commend my teammates, commend my coaching staff and this organization,” LeBron James said. “Just being ready to go when the time was called, and giving everything we had up to this moment. But may the better man win, and the Suns was the better man throughout this series.”

James joined Davis on the sideline on March 20. From there, more injuries, neartrades, COVID-related distractions, rotation changes, and untimely absences only mounted for the Lakers, as did the chemistry issues.

“From the moment we entered the bubble, to now today, it’s been draining,” LeBron acknowledged. “Mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally draining. Did not stop me from committing to the game, committing to my teammates, committing to the work…but it’s been mentally draining. Every team has to deal with it, but with us and Miami going the long haul in the bubble then coming right back on the short notice, it’s been very draining.”

The Miami Heat, who the Lakers defeated in the 2020 Finals, were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in their first-round series earlier this week.

By the time the Lakers limped into June, there was no reason to expect a championship-caliber output, other than a belief in James’ perennial greatness.

In the end, the Lakers became the fifth defending champion in NBA history to be knocked out in the opening round on their home court, and the first since the 2011-12 Dallas Mavericks. The loss “dropped” LeBron to 14-1 in first round series for his career, and 0-1 when coming off a uniquely grueling offseason and calendar.

“All in all, I give my hats off to everyone on this team who showed up every day to work,” Lakers star LeBron James said. “Showed up every day to compete…Obviously, fell short of our goal, but tried to do everything we could to be as great as we could be under the circumstances.”

In the months ahead, GM Rob Pelinka and the Lakers front office will have plenty of consequential and tricky decisions to make as they re-tool for another title run with James.

Drummond, Caruso, Dennis Schroder, Talen Horton-Tucker, Montrezl Harrell, Wesley Matthews, and Markieff Morris will hit free agency. KCP and Kyle Kuzma will be potential trade pieces. After Game 6, both LeBron and Anthony Davis said they expect to be involved in organizational decisions, as they were last year.

For now, though, James and the Lakers will, at long last, be able to enjoy a full offseason to recharge and recuperate.

“It’s going to work wonders for me,” LeBron James said about the overdue break. “During the season, I don’t talk about rest. I don’t even like to put my mind frame into that. It makes me weak. But in the offseason, I get an opportunity to rest.”

Above any summer transaction, getting back to full strength is the best improvement the Lakers can make.