When the Los Angeles Lakers signed LeBron James to a four-year, $153.3 million contract last summer, the assumption was that the team’s six-year playoff drought would be coming to an end in 2019.
James hasn’t missed the postseason since 2006, despite playing on teams that arguably had no business being there, and he’s played in every NBA Finals for the last eight years. Meanwhile, the Lakers were coming off of their best season since 2013 thanks to the contributions made by the team’s exciting young core of players.
Now, with 10 games left in the regular season, the Lakers have officially been eliminated from playoff contention, putting James’ remarkable 14-year playoff run to an end and extending his team’s playoff drought another year.
How did we get here?
The easiest thing to do would be to point to the amount of injuries the Lakers suffered throughout the season. Because of injuries, the four-man lineup of James, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma played just 23 games together. In those games, they went 15-8 and posted a net rating of +5.3.
Unfortunately, three of those four players missed at least 20 games, including Ball, who is expected to miss a team-high 35 games. Assuming Rajon Rondo plays every game for the rest of the season, he’ll finish second on the team with 34 missed games. That’s not to mention JaVale McGee, who only missed seven games after being hospitalized with pneumonia, but understandably took some time to work his way back to full strength.
However, whether fans care to hear it or not, injuries are part of the game and the Lakers aren’t the only team that had to battle through them this season. In fact, by the season’s end, they’ll finish in the middle of the pack in games missed to injury.
Does that mean injuries didn’t play a big part in the amount of games the Lakers lost this season? No, but it’s not the only reason, nor is it the biggest reason.
Going into the season, there was no question that the Lakers were going to be a worse team without James because that’s what happens when a team loses its star player. The reason they were as bad as they were, though, was because of the way the roster was constructed over the summer.
With the roughly $38 million they had after signing James in free agency, the Lakers spent a combined $21 million on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rondo, who are among the bottom-five on the team in box plus-minus. Through 38 games, including 21 starts, Rondo is posting a team-low box plus-minus of -5.
The remaining cap space was distributed between Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley and JaVale McGee. McGee was serviceable for only a quarter of the season, Stephenson fell out of the rotation midway through the season and Beasley now plays in China.
That eccentric cast of characters was coached by third-year coach Luke Walton, who was on the hot seat as soon as this season started. Walton didn’t do himself any favors with the decisions he made with his personnel, but he also wasn’t put in the best position to succeed.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the Lakers’ shortcomings this past year, but it has to start at the top. Luckily, the front office will have an opportunity to show they’ve learned from their mistakes this summer.
The looming question is: Will they? With the team’s official elimination from playoff contention, we’re one step closer to finding out.