Did LeBron Make a Mistake Going to the Lakers?
As I write this, the Los Angeles Lakers have nine games to go in the regular season and are tanking for a better draft pick rather than fighting for better playoff seeding, which is what many believed would happen in LeBron James’ first season in Hollywood. Instead, LeBron’s 13-year playoff streak ends, while the Lakers’ playoff drought extends to six years. The Lakers have been a disaster in the first year of the James era, which raises the question: Did LeBron make a mistake going to the Lakers?
At first glance, the obvious answer is yes.
When LeBron signed with the Lakers in free agency last summer, the rumored plan was to pair him with another superstar such as Paul George via free agency or Kawhi Leonard via trade.
George was actually traded from the Indiana Pacers to the Oklahoma City Thunder before the prior season because of his expressed interest to join his hometown Lakers - the Pacers didn’t want him to walk for nothing. Even while playing for OKC that season, Lakers fans actively recruited him during games. He was definitely going to the Lakers.
Until he shocked the NBA world by re-signing with the Thunder.
That same summer, Leonard had requested a trade from the San Antonio Spurs, falling out with them after a season filled with healthcare disputes. Another Los Angelino who had expressed interest at playing for his hometown, Leonard would require a hefty trade package in return for his MVP-level talent, and the Lakers were one of the teams that stepped forward, armed with an enticing package of young, promising players like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and plenty of draft picks. He was definitely going to the Lakers.
Until the Spurs decided that they’d rather send Leonard to another country than help the Lakers, and traded him to the Toronto Raptors.
After that, the Lakers weren’t left with any good options, opting to sign a number of vets to one-year deals to try again next summer. Team President Magic Johnson and LeBron put out a unified front: creation and ball control were more essential for their new additions than shooting prowess, so LeBron wouldn’t have to do as much for the team as his years advanced. It was the Cavs’ plan with Kyrie ascending to stardom: let LeBron play off the ball instead of being the center of the basketball universe.
Where they miscalculated was in forgetting that the Lakers have no one of Kyrie’s talents on their roster for LeBron to defer to, and when he inevitably grabbed the reins, he found himself with a roster of subpar shooters who were ineffective without the ball. Brilliant.
For a while LeBron made it work. On Christmas morning, the Lakers were in the middle of the playoff standings in the West. By Christmas night, he had suffered the worst injury of this career playing against the Warriors. The groin injury would end up forcing him to miss 17 games. Magic had tried to build a roster that wouldn’t have such an overreliance on their star that they didn’t know how to play without him. But in the rugged West, you can’t lose the best player in basketball and not feel the effects. By the time LeBron returned a month later, the Lakers were in a freefall.
Desperate, the Lakers tried to trade for disgruntled superstar Anthony Davis, who, like other stars before him had expressed interest in playing for the Lakers. Like another trade negotiation before this one, the Lakers offered a good package of picks and young players. When Davis’ agent Rich Paul announced that his client wouldn’t be resigning with New Orleans and wanted to be traded to Los Angeles, Davis was definitely headed West.
Until the Pelicans stood pat and stripped the Lakers of their lifeline, deciding that they too would rather hurt their own short term than assist the Lakers’ long term.
This situation was much worse that their previous dalliances, however. The young Lakers were suddenly reduced to trade chips - the uncertainty of their futures having a tremendously negative impact. Even with the passing of the deadline they didn’t recover, and even when LeBron returned, the freefall continued. In mid-March, with the playoffs out of reach, the Lakers waved the white flag and put LeBron on a “load management” regimen to start tanking.
It’s easy to say LeBron made a mistake signing with the Lakers. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are big names, but they’re an inexperienced front office that hasn’t built anything. Every major move they’ve made except signing LeBron has backfired. While no one expected the Lakers to be title contenders this season, the expectation was to make the playoffs at the very least.
There’s still a chance for redemption. Unlike in his second run in Cleveland, LeBron signed for the long term: three years with a player option for the fourth. Before going down with season-ending injuries, Ball and Ingram had shown improvements. And though the players didn’t perform on the court, all the one-year deals mean the Lakers will have the cap space to pursue a max-level player.
The free agency class includes Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Kemba Walker. A better draft pick this summer after their late-season tank means they can offer an even better trade package to the Pelicans for Davis or any other superstar that might want a change in scenery.
If the Lakers play their cards right, they’ll have the superstars to pair with LeBron and compete for a title next season - which is crucial, because his window is closing. His stats were still otherworldly, but the injury and his obvious dissatisfaction with the on-court product left LeBron looking mortal for the first time in his career.
Whether that’s a small bump in the road of his extended prime or the first sign of Father Time’s inevitable victory is a serious question. If Magic and Pelinka can’t make a move this summer, coming to LA will end up being a terrible decision for LeBron.