On January 25, the Los Angeles Lakers traveled to Brooklyn to take on the Nets and displayed a joy that was unusual for them this season.
Their top stars LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook were all healthy – one of just 21 times this season that has happened. It was Davis’ first game after a knee injury. It was James’ only appearance in New York. He had been suspended for the team’s November visit to Madison Square Garden, his favorite place to play.
On back-to-back Nets possessions, James stole the ball and ran the other way as the crowd murmured in anticipation. They burst into cheers every time James dunked.
After the second, James smiled. He laughed with former NFL star Michael Strahan, who sat courtside, and ran to the still-smiling Lakers bench.
“The more minutes we log, the more we continue to see how dynamic we can be,” James said after that game.
The Lakers were eighth in the Western Conference and the night offered hope. At the time, it seemed inconceivable that a team designed to be an unbeatable superteam could get stuck in the qualifying tournament, but the Lakers had plenty of time to move up the standings. Many assumed they could still be dangerous in any playoff situation.
At the time, few expected what would actually happen.
The Lakers were knocked out of the playoffs by the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, even though James had the second-highest scoring average of his 19-year-old career this season. On Friday, James was ruled out for the final two games of the season with a lingering ankle injury that had already sidelined him for the previous three games. The Lakers are expected to finish 11th in the Western Conference, a spectacular failure for a team that expected to compete for a championship this season.
This season has been difficult for many teams as the NBA attempts to return to normalcy with the coronavirus pandemic still ongoing and with high profile injuries affecting many teams. But no team in the league will end the season with as big a chasm between expectation and reality as the Lakers.
“It’s obviously disappointing on many levels,” Westbrook said. “But there’s not much you can do about it at this point.”
Westbrook was introduced to much fanfare in August, as Rob Pelinka, president of basketball operations for the Lakers, said he gave them a chance to win the franchise’s 18th championship. But his arrival did not come without questions.
How, for example, would a player who needs the ball in his hands to be productive fit in with James, one of the best attacking facilitators of all time? Was it wise for the Lakers to get older — signing a slew of more than 30 veterans — when they had already been plagued with the health issues that often come with age?
Preseasons don’t always predict the regular season, but the Lakers went winless in theirs.
When they stumbled at the start of the season, there was an easy way for the team to explain their situation: it happens. Superstars don’t always gel right away.
The pandemic offered an excuse – it made continuity almost impossible for any team in the first months of the season.
The pandemic disruptions peaked during the Omicron wave in November and December, during which dozens of players entered league health and safety protocols.
The NBA’s testing system wasn’t perfect and James suffered from it – he flew home from Sacramento on a quarantine plane due to a false positive coronavirus test result ahead of a game against the Kings. It was the 12th of the Lakers’ first 23 games that James had missed.
A few weeks later, a coronavirus outbreak swept through the team, even sidelining Lakers coach Frank Vogel for six games.
Many teams, however, have been hit even harder than the Lakers, including the Chicago Bulls, which had 10 players in health and safety protocols at a time in December, and had to postpone two games.
Injuries offered another explanation for the Lakers’ stumbles. James and Davis have missed over 60 games combined – not an unexpected result, given their recent histories. Davis said he was “disappointed that we weren’t lucky enough to have a full squad.”
“I don’t know how good we could have been,” he said. “With me personally, two unfortunate injuries that kept me out for a while. It just became part of the season. As one of the leaders of the team, especially on the defensive end of the field where the guys need me there, it sucks for me, it sucks for our team, our organization.
But this season, injuries have strangled many teams.
The Miami Heat lost Jimmy Butler for almost a month. The Phoenix Suns lost Chris Paul for a month. The Los Angeles Clippers went all season without Kawhi Leonard and lost their other star, Paul George, for three months.
While those teams found ways to adapt and stay in the playoff conversation anyway, the Lakers couldn’t.
This was partly due to a thinner roster than it should have been due to the resources devoted to Westbrook.
To acquire Westbrook, the Lakers traded young players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma. They refused to re-sign Alex Caruso, who has become an important defensive piece for the Bulls.
The Lakers’ defense was in the bottom third of the NBA this season, as they gave up 112.8 points per 100 possessions. The only team to give up more quick break points per game is Houston.
The Lakers also struggled to defend inside the paint, a symptom of their complicated big-man rotation.
During their championship season two years ago, the Lakers used JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard as primary centers, sometimes asking Davis and James to fill the role. This season they brought back Howard, two years his senior and less effective. They signed 33-year-old DeAndre Jordan, who is also past his prime.
They didn’t have the trump cards at the trade deadline to make a move that didn’t cripple them further. Westbrook’s contract will become more attractive to other teams next year when he enters his final year, assuming he chooses his player option for the 2022-23 season.
As clear as it was that the Lakers roster wasn’t working, it was even clearer that a fix wasn’t coming soon.
They were losing to teams at the bottom of the league. The best teams beat them too. Young playoff teams like the Grizzlies and Timberwolves mocked them, with Westbrook’s poor shooting a regular target.
“That was the season we just didn’t make it,” Lakers forward Carmelo Anthony said. “We had the tools. Some things were out of our control. Some things we could control, some things we couldn’t. We did not do it. We can’t find any excuses for this. We just didn’t.
Over the past nine years, the Lakers have missed the playoffs seven times. It’s a previously unthinkable stretch for a franchise that was once accustomed to competing, if not always winning, championships.
This is a franchise that expects the addition of superstars to save them, and sometimes they do. This season, this equation has not worked.