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This Lakers season was doomed before it started

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The Lakers were denied a real chance to defend their title. The reasons why make some degree of logical sense, but it will always feel like a missed opportunity.

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NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The best jokes have a degree of truth to them. It’s why when Danny Green sarcastically said (prior to being traded) that LeBron James might not show up for the first mont of the season after the NBA elected to give the defending champs just barely more than two months between winning the title and resuming play, it was funny. It’s why when LeBron himself joked with Barack Obama that he might cherry pick for the whole first half of the season, we laughed.

The wry cracks were a tad hyperbolic, but some real frustration was trickling out from behind their smiles. To paraphrase the great philosopher Lou Williams, they were half serious always never.

And to be absolutely fair, the short offseason isn’t the only thing that wrecked the Lakers., and brought their season to a merciful end in the first round after a Game 6 defeat against the Suns. The short break didn’t cause LeBron’s MVP-caliber campaign to get derailed by Solomon Hill undercutting him while diving for a loose ball, leading to the longest injury absence of his career right before the playoffs. They also never truly figured out the right mix at center after prioritizing on-paper talent upgrades over continuity in moves that were much-lauded at the time. In the days to come, there will be real discussions to be had about this team’s roster construction at center, and about whether they had enough shooting or offensive creativity to help lessen the load on their two stars.

But where it matters? Where the Lakers were at their best? The short break absolutely took its toll, and really made any other concerns moot, denying us a real chance to dissect whether this mix could have worked when things started to count.

In that aforementioned exchange with Obama on HBO’s “The Shop,” LeBron and the 44th President joked about passing more of the load to his Lakers co-star, Anthony Davis.

“Let Anthony Davis do all of the work, man,” Obama said with a smile.

“Yup, that’s what we got him for,” James cracked, laughing.

But it turns out a 6’10 power forward with guard skills and the size to play center while defending every position wasn’t built for the grind of such a short turnaround. Davis tried to limit the physical toll by playing a career-low 10% of his regular season minutes at center, but still hurt his Achilles and calf on a relatively routine basketball collision with Nikola Jokic.

Davis came back and started to find his groove in the postseason, but hyperextended his knee in Game 3, leading to a groin strain in Game 4 while overcompensating and trying to play through the pain to help his team win. He tried again in Game 6, and his body literally gave out under the stress of the attempt. So Charles Barkley and other pundits can crack classless jokes about Davis’ injuries all they want, but those who have paid attention know how much these bumps and bruises have burned him, and how badly he wants to play.

Now, I’m not a doctor. Maybe the short offseason didn’t cause his body to fall apart, but it certainly couldn’t have helped. The other conference finalists dealing with similar maladies to their stars all season doesn’t feel like a coincidence.

On the flip side of things, Davis’ absence showed his value. Without him in the playoffs, the Lakers were lost at center, and their league-best defense started to show cracks. They didn’t have the offensive punch to make up for it and get over the hump, or to survive horrendous and scared shooting. When things mattered last season, Davis at center was the x-factor to solve for all possible problems, their small-ball ace in the hole that led them to the title, eating anyone who came near him alive on defense and scoring at will on the other end. The team got a short glimpse of that dream again to close out Game 2, but no amount of glue, staples and prayers could hold that title-contending version of this team together. Without Davis, they didn’t have an answer to what the Suns brought.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Brooklyn Nets
Injuries: The story of the 2021 Lakers.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

This missive isn’t meant to put an asterisk on this season. Lazy sports media takesmiths have that discussion about every champion, every year, and every year it’s the lamest, lowest-common-denominator discourse. The Lakers didn’t win the title, and someone else will. Injuries affect the championship race every season, and this year is no different. As they say, the best ability is availability.

But what will burn for a long time in the hearts that pump purple and gold blood is that the Lakers didn’t really get a legitimate chance to defend their title. This team, when it was whole, was championship-caliber. And while the NBA Players Association voted to approve this protracted mess of a season to save the league and themselves billions of dollars in revenue and avoid a lockout, it’s been hard not to feel like money and desperation to return to a normal calendar won out over the spirit of basketball.

It’s not a guarantee the Lakers would have repeated as champions, to be sure. The Suns are good and deserve credit, and dealt with their own injuries in this series. The Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks loom in the East, and there are other legitimate contenders in the West as well. But with a little more time between their protracted title run and this expedited regular season, maybe the Lakers would have had a real shot rather than having too many injuries cascade on them at once to fight their way out of the first round. Or maybe a team built around two superstars — one who is 36 years old with massive miles on his tires and the other without a stellar track record of availability — was always a calculated risk. It paid off last season, and it didn’t in this one. It happens.

Now, should we cry over millionaires not getting to succeed in a child’s game? Is it logical and ethical to want the NBA to lose billions with a delay, potentially leading to a shortfall that the billionaires who run the league would have responded to with layoffs and furloughs of lower-level employees in arenas and on the ground who make the game possible, and by tearing up the CBA and locking out the players we all root for? No.

But sports fandom is often not logical or ethical, and in a vacuum, as someone who loves basketball with every fiber of their being, it’s hard not to feel like something was lost here, to fantasize over what-if scenarios that could have allowed L.A. to get the rest they needed to mount up for a true title defense. It will always feel like a missed opportunity, even if maybe it was unavoidable to keep the league we know and love alive. I’m not smart enough to ever fully reconcile what the right option among a lot of bad ones was, but the reality the NBA chose will always leave a bitter aftertaste.

Still, if not being able to repeat because they fell apart physically was the price for banner No. 17, you pay it every time without question. The Lakers won a title with this duo, making the Davis trade a success. Now it’s just a matter of seeing if they can do it again at some point. They couldn’t this season, and it may have been unavoidable no matter how they constructed their roster if Davis wasn’t going to be able to sustain the pounding.

But I keep thinking back to that conversation James had with Obama on “The Shop,” as the star laughed through what was surely some frustration about everything he knew was coming, and the former president dropped a line that essentially summarized what went wrong for the Lakers this season.

“Hey, you’ve got to save yourself for when it counts,” Obama said.

“Yes sir,” James replied.

James may have been kidding around, but there was a degree of truth to his goal of staying healthy for the playoffs, and the Lakers as a whole couldn’t achieve it. In the end, it was all that mattered.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.