I’m in a strange place right now as a Lakers fan.
When LeBron James signed in the offseason, I assumed this year would be a nonstop party. Sure, the Lakers wouldn’t be the best team in the league, but the combination of James and an intriguing young core ensured that the games would be exciting. After years of being stuck in lottery hell, the prospect of returning to the playoffs was at least supposed to make this year enjoyable.
And yet, more than anything, this team stresses me out.
Perhaps the problem starts at the top. I’ve generally been pleased with the work of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, but right now, the front office is actively deterring my happiness with the team. Firstly, the free agency decisions created a roster that doesn’t quite fit together, which we all knew conceptually, but the reality is harder to witness. It is somewhat maddening to watch Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Josh Hart as the backup frontcourt next to a two-way center and realize that this was the front office’s plan.
Admittedly, there has been some effort to course correct by bringing in Tyson Chandler, but that provides a new set of issues, namely that I can’t watch the Lakers without being constantly reminded of the two most painful playoff defeats of my fandom. This summer brought in enough players who required adjusting to root for, and Chandler is tipping the scales even more.
There’s also the dark cloud that Magic is casting over Luke Walton, who is one of the only good things to emerge from the Jim Buss era. Applying pressure to the head coach seven games into the season after patience was the theme of the offseason is not only hypocritical, but more importantly, fruitless. A strong front office has been the greatest predictor of success in the NBA, and the volatility being displayed here is worrisome.
Walton is now operating in a situation where every decision he makes seems like a referendum on his capability to be a head coach. It’s exhausting constantly defending him, especially when he sometimes makes decisions that seemingly defy reason. If patience was the theme of the offseason, that means the Lakers should be prioritizing the development of their youth. And yet, Lonzo Ball sits on the bench for 16 straight minutes to finish a game. Regardless of the merits of Ball vs. Rajon Rondo, it’s an awful lot to ask a point guard to play that many consecutive minutes outside of a playoff setting.
Normally, it would be fine if Luke were still figuring out his rotations 11 games into the season, and he probably still needs to reconfigure the starting lineup. He has already dealt with minutes restrictions, injuries, suspensions, and now, new players. After the well-publicized meeting, though, every hiccup feels like ammunition in Magic’s arsenal for a potential firing.
The games themselves have been less fun than I would have expected. The Lakers learned how to play defense last year, and I miss that. A high-flying offense is harder to appreciate when points will inevitably be surrendered on the other end, particularly when awesome transition baskets (yes, I do enjoy watching the Lakers run the break — I’m not a monster) are countered with wide-open threes. The math just doesn’t work out. The beauty of bringing in Walton from Golden State was that he would introduce a modern offense, but it feels like Los Angeles is moving further away from that idea.
Close games are exciting, to a point, but like JaVale McGee, I would be okay with a few blowouts now and again (though not of the Toronto variety). With LeBron in tow, clutch situations were supposed to be in the bag — this is the guy who helped Cleveland outperform its point differential by seven wins last season. But the Lakers have still struggled to close games out. The perennial free throw problem is back, and Derrick Rose and J.J. Barea were way too close to giving Los Angeles two more losses.
There is plenty of time for the Lakers to figure things out. Clearly, patience is necessary when more than half the roster is turned over and a new system is installed. In Los Angeles, drama is always part of the package. James is still operating at about 60 percent capacity, which is right in line with how he has treated the regular season in previous years. And there have been enough bright spots for Los Angeles thus far, including Brandon Ingram’s assertiveness and defense, McGee’s thunderous dunks and blocks, and Josh Hart putting his body on the line every night.
The last time the Lakers were supposed to be “fun,” the season distinctly turned in the opposite direction. I don’t see that happening this time around. LeBron is still the best player in the world, he’s in Los Angeles for at least three years, and once he settles in, it will be a joy watching him work and elevate the rest of the team with him.
But after five years of irrelevance, the burden of expectation is heavier than I remember. It’s still taking some getting used to.