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How the Lakers lost the plot

The Lakers have to find their way back to where they were in 2020. The question is: how?

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Los Angeles Lakers v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

If we’re to believe everything that was reported about LeBron James during All-Star Weekend, and psychoanalyze the comments James himself made in his hometown, then we can confidently the four-time league MVP is unhappy with the current state of the Lakers.

And why wouldn’t he be?

With just 24 games left the 2021-22 campaign, the Lakers are 27-31, a whole six games back of the final guaranteed playoff spot in the Western Conference. Seeding shouldn’t matter for a team with James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook on its payroll, but the trio of future Hall of Famers have played just 20 games together, and in those games, they haven’t exactly looked like world-beaters, posting a net rating of -2.5 in 376 minutes and a record of 11-9.

There’s plenty of blame to go around when it comes to the Lakers’ disappointing season, starting at the top with the team’s controlling owner and president of basketball operations Jeanie Buss, but it can all be traced back to one crucial dynamic within the team: James’ wishes, and the front office’s ability to execute them. Let’s use the 2018-19 season as an example.

LA Clippers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Before James signed with the Lakers in the summer of 2018, it was leaked that he wanted to be a bigger factor off the ball with his next team. Whether or not James relayed that to Magic Johnson during their meeting on the opening night of free agency, Johnson got the message and surrounded James with players that could rebound the ball and push the pace next to James; players like Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley.

Of course, those players ended up being better fits next to James in theory than in practice, and James ended the season with the same usage rate (31.6%) he had in his last season with the Cleveland Cavaliers; the only difference was that the 2018-19 season didn’t end with another Finals appearance for James; it ended with him watching from the sidelines as his team lost their 45th game of the season.

The 2019-20 season was an entirely different story for the Lakers, and their acquisition of Anthony Davis obviously played a huge part in that. However, an underrated aspect of the Lakers’ 2020 title run was the role James played in order to maximize the team’s potential.

Before the season even started, Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported that the Lakers intended to start LeBron James at point guard next to Danny Green. Why would James agree to that after making it known he wanted to play off-ball the season prior, you may ask? An absence of comparable options.

NBA: MAR 08 Lakers at Clippers Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In James’ first season, he was surrounded by Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo, both of whom are playmakers before anything else. When Ball was dealt to New Orleans as part of the Davis trade, the gap between James and the second-best playmaker on the team became jarring, so James stepped back into that role. The results, while predictable, were magnificent.

In his 17th season, James led the league in assists per game (10.2) for the first time in his career. Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso and Danny Green took turns guarding the other team’s best guard on the defensive end, but on offense, James was the primary initiator — it’s why they were able to start both Caldwell-Pope and Green in the playoffs even though neither players are known for their ball-handling abilities.

Despite the success the Lakers had with James as the team’s primary ball-handler, they traded Green and a first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Sixth Man of the Year candidate Dennis Schröder. The Schröder trade itself wasn’t bad, but the decision not to bring him back created a bigger problem for the Lakers; a problem they already had a solution for in James.

Something seemed to have changed after the Lakers’ first-round exit in 2021, though. After seeing the supporting cast fold when James was hobbled and Davis was on the sidelines with yet another unlucky injury, it was no longer enough to just get James a capable ball-handler to play with; they needed a star point guard to play alongside James and carry the load without him. And that, to me, is where the plot was lost.

It’s one thing to want someone to take the load off of James in the late stages of his career — after all, the non-LeBron minutes were a problem that existed even when the Lakers were winning. It’s a completely different thing to overcorrect said problem by trading away a core that won a championship in 2020 and looked like a contender before James’ injury midway through the 2020-21 season.

The Lakers can’t undo the Westbrook trade, nor can they re-enter negotiations with Alex Caruso and Schröder over their contracts. What they can do is re-establish the middle ground between doing what’s best for them, and doing what’s best for James’ longevity, which, at this stage of his career, is the most important thing to him because of his desire to play alongside his son.

If they can accomplish that, then everything else they have to do, such as (likely) hiring a new head coach and finding a workable deal for Westbrook, will be easier because they’ll have something they didn’t have last summer: Direction. And not just that, but a blueprint for what’s worked in the past.

The tools are there; they just have to work together to use them.

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

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