It’s official. The Los Angeles Lakers have been eliminated from playoff contention, and LeBron James will miss the postseason for the first time since his rookie season in 2003-2004. It’s hard to blame James for his teams’ performance; he did miss 17 games due to a groin injury, and there were times when his effort was lacking, but James had a typically excellent season, averaging 27.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 8.2 assists, and 1.2 steals per game.
The problem is in the roster that now former team president Magic Johnson built around James. Johnson didn’t adhere to the formula that has worked for the past nine years, and his team paid dearly. Instead of winning 33 games, here is the team that Magic should have put together that would be a high seed in the Western Conference right now.
How do you win with LeBron James? You surround him with three-point shooters at all positions and give him at least one sidekick who can score in isolation. The Miami Heat did this with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Mike Miller, Ray Allen, and James Jones. The Cleveland Cavaliers had Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and J.R. Smith, among others.
The Lakers have Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the best volume three-point shooter on the team, with a 35% clip on 4.9 attempts per game. LA’s young core – Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma – do not shoot the triple often or well. So which free agents did Johnson fill the team with? Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, and JaVale McGee, who obviously did nothing to help with the lack of shooting.
Los Angeles originally planned on going after Paul George to pair with James, but George decided to stay in Oklahoma City. The majority of the Lakers’ roster consists of veterans on one-year deals, so that the team will have plenty of cap space in the offseason to pursue another star. There will be plenty of top-tier players on the market, so this strategy is not a bad one. However, the execution was abysmal. There is no reason why Johnson had to fill the roster with washed up vets who don’t fit James’ play style just to keep his options open in 2019-2020.
It’s hard to fault the team for moving on from D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance Jr., and Jordan Clarkson, who are all playing well for their new teams. But the Lakers parted ways with Julius Randle and Brook Lopez, both of whom made sense to retain. Randle signed a two-year deal with the New Orleans Pelicans worth less than $18 million, which included a player option for 2019-2020, which Randle will most likely decline as he has put up 21 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game this season. Randle isn’t a perfect fit for James, but he is a reliable post scorer who can shoot from outside. LA could have offered him more money to remain with the team for one season, and reap the benefits of his improvement.
The bigger travesty was not re-signing Brook Lopez, who earned less than $3.4 million from the Milwaukee Bucks this season. You would be hard-pressed to find a center more perfectly suited to playing with LeBron James than Lopez; he rebounds well, protects the rim, and shoots at a high rate from beyond the arc. But Johnson let him go in favor of McGee, who hasn’t been bad, but does nothing to open up the floor for James.
At the February trade deadline, Johnson swung two separate deals; Svi Mykhailiuk for Reggie Bullock and Micheal Beasley and Ivica Zubac for Mike Muscala. Beasley was another disappointing free agent signing, while Zubac was performing well in his limited playing time. Neither Bullock or Muscala has lived up to expectations in LA, and will both be free agents after the season.
With all of the moves that Johnson has made since signing James, it’s clear that he put too much faith in his young core. He seems torn between going all-in with James and wanting to create a sustainable playoff team. The problem is that by not committing to either strategy, he will cost the team a chance at following either path. At this rate, the Lakers won’t be talented enough to compete for a championship even with the dissolving of Golden State’s superteam, and the young core will get too expensive and end up disbanding.
LA tried to trade for Anthony Davis before the deadline, but the Pelicans decided to wait until the offseason to seriously consider offers, when the Boston Celtics will enter the bidding. If New Orleans wouldn’t accept Ball, Ingram, Hart, Kuzma, cap relief, and two future first-round picks, it doesn’t seem like the Lakers can win a bidding war.
So what should Magic have done? Here is a playoff-worthy rotation of players that could have been acquired instead of the current mess.
PG: Kemba Walker, Rajon Rondo
SG: Reggie Bullock, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
SF: Brandon Ingram, Lance Stephenson
PF: Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma, Mike Muscala
C: Brook Lopez, Tyson Chandler
In this scenario, the Lakers swing a trade for Walker by offering Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and picks. If the Hornets don’t want to pay Walker $221 million over five years (and they shouldn’t), getting two young players to build around would be a great return. Walker’s cap hit would be $12 million this year and he would be a free agent after the season, but the Lakers would own his bird rights. They could then sign a star in free agency, fill out the rest of the team with ring-chasing veterans, and sign Walker to a long-term deal by going over the salary cap.
Lopez is also signed long-term, because it’s the obvious thing to do. Four years/$20 million is more than a fair deal for Los Angeles.
The trades for Bullock and Muscala have still been made, as even though neither player has been as good as advertised, their skillsets are still valuable.
This is still not close to the final product, but it’s a roster that should easily make the playoffs this year, while still giving the Lakers cap flexibility in the offseason. Signing a max free agent and then flipping Ingram and Kuzma for another star veteran would give LA one heck of a core.
But this isn’t what happened, and the Lakers are suffering for it. If Los Angeles isn’t able to add a significant amount of talent and take advantage of the last few years of LeBron James’ prime, Magic Johnson must be held accountable.