History says the presence of LeBron James guarantees a playoff place and potential title contention. So why are the Los Angeles Lakers struggling in 10th place in the West? Mark Deeks investigates.
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The Los Angeles Lakers have long had a unique way of working that they are proud of.
By virtue of the history of the franchise and the glamour of their city and brand, the team has long been able to rely upon what is known as ‘Lakers Exceptionalism’.
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Existing as a direct repudiation of the NBA’s ideal of parity, Lakers Exceptionalism is about the Lakers having higher, and more realistically high, expectations of themselves than the competition.
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‘This is the Lakers’, is the logic. 70 years of franchise history, 16 championships, and untold number of great players, and the lure of Hollywood – it is supposed to be different there. The Lakers are supposed to attract the best of the best simply by being who they are.
Over the last few years, though, this has been far from the case.
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The storied Lakers franchise, which only missed the playoffs five times total in its first 65 seasons of existence, has now missed it in each of the last five. With Kobe Bryant gone, it turns out that acquiring a new superstar befitting the Lakers’ legacy was not as easy as it had been in the past.
Indeed, the Lakers had to rebuild through the draft in a way completely alien to their usual M.O. and watch on as the salary cap liberalisation and vastly increased revenues league-wide levelled the free agency playing field.
LeBron James finishes at the rim
That long-standing rot was supposedly stopped this summer with the signing of LeBron James, the contender to Michael Jordan’s crown as the game’s greatest ever.
With his transcendent combination of passing and scoring, James in theory would make the offense immediately better – the same shooters who had struggled with their efficiency and consistency in their careers to date would suddenly find it all much easier when they were receiving pocket passes that were consistently on time and on target from the man who got JR Smith paid.
Dwyane Wade and LeBron James hark back to their Miami Heat days with an All-Star Game alley oop
However, if the above is true, then it bears examination as to why they currently reside in 10th place in the Western Conference. At 28-29, the Lakers trail their cross-town rivals, the Clippers, who hold the eighth and final playoff spot with a 32-27 record. With less than a third of the season to go, the Lakers have only a record that puts them on a level with the Charlotte Hornets and Dallas Mavericks.
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We have long known it to be true that, after eight consecutive Eastern Conference championships and NBA Finals appearances, a LeBron James-led team is supposed to automatically be vaulted into contention, even if he were to be paired with 11 stockbrokers and a limping ferret.
So how come the Lakers are so off-script?
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The path to contention lies in the idea that in LeBron, the league’s figurehead, the Lakers have a player that free agents and/or potential trade candidates will want to play with.
Although this has not yet become a reality, it was not likely to in the first year – apart from Paul George, who wisely chose to stay with the Oklahoma City Thunder and become a superstar player in his own right, no one of Lakers Exceptionalism-calibre has had the option to do so yet.
Indeed, it is highly significant that LeBron chose the Lakers, and he surely did not do so because of the opportunity to join Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram. The long-dormant Exceptionalism is alive again, even if the fire needs a log throwing on it.
The Lakers tried and failed with a trade deadline move to pair Anthony Davis with James
Targets such as Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard will be pursued in the plannable future. To make successful pitches in the coming years, though, means showing signs of competitiveness again. Not competing with the Clippers for the eighth spot, but competing for the higher echelons of the conference. And to do so means improving their schematics before the talent gets there.
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The Lakers of last season showed decent progress on the defensive end. After ranking stone cold last in that category in 2016/17, they moved all the way up to 12th in the league in defensive efficiency last season, buoyed by having a legitimate interior anchor in Brook Lopez, a potentially premier point guard defender in Lonzo Ball, and a decent-to-good wing defender in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
LeBron James’ fifth triple-double of the season was not enough to help the Lakers avoid defeat against the Hawks
That defense sustained to begin this season, ranking ninth through the start of December as the Lakers peaked as high as the provisional fourth seed in the brutally competitive Western Conference. However, it has declined since then, tapering away to being only 19th best in the 2019 calendar year, and ranking as the fourth-worst since January 15.
It is true to say that the Lakers have suffered from injuries this season, more than some of their peers. Of the regular starters, Kuzma has missed six games, JaVale McGee has missed seven, Ingram 11, Ball 12, and the never-normally-injured James has missed 18. Considering the Lakers are 22-17 with LeBron in the line-up and only 6-12 without him, it is very fair to assume they would be ahead in the playoff race had he not been absent.
LeBron James posted his 77th career triple-double as the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Boston Celtics in a thrilling encounter
That said, while the injuries and mid-season moves can account for a fair bit of the line-up juggling (12 different players have started for the Lakers this season), there are problems with the construction of the roster and the staggering of it that cannot simply be willed away.
It is also not as if their mid-season moves have been particularly successful. Although Reggie Bullock should provide valuable spacing as a rental shooter, Tyson Chandler was brought in to shore up the perceived hole at backup center, only to be outplayed by third-year player Ivica Zubac.
Yet Zubac himself was then moved at the trade deadline, along with Michael Beasley (a signing which did nothing for the team), in exchange for reserve stretch big Mike Muscala from the very same Clippers team.
Former Laker Ivica Zubac rises to finish against the Suns
A justification for the trade founded in Zubac’s upcoming free agency and likely departure ignores the lack of team control over Muscala’s future – they are not likely keeping Muscala, either, so why trade away the better player? A plan to build a questionably-fitting core flanked with patch-up role players in need of regular recycling is not an alluring plan.
Ultimately, the move for Muscala hinges on his outside shooting ability. The idea that LeBron’s presence would improve the shooting around him has not come to fruition – the Lakers rank fifth-last in the league in team three-point shooting at 33.9 per cent, despite hitherto mediocre shooters Rajon Rondo (42.3 per cent) and Lance Stephenson (38.3 per cent) having career-best seasons from there.
Newly-acquired Laker Reggie Bullock fires a jump shot for former team Detroit
Muscala and Bullock, the two trade deadline acquisitions, were clearly targeted to remedy that. But to do so meant giving up two long-term pieces in Zubac and Svi Mykhailiuk; in pursuit of the merely-relative short-term success that a low playoff berth would bring, small pieces of the future are being traded for rental.
This, in turn, has stemmed from the poor prior construction of the roster over the summer. In signing Rondo, Stephenson and Beasley, the Lakers prioritised playmakers rather than shooters, with the problem being that playmakers need shooters to make plays for.
As a result, there is an imbalance of parts that do not cohere well. Ingram, in particular, is on an island, for he is not really either of those things despite his auditions as both.
James and Lakers coach Luke Walton exchange words
Head coach Luke Walton, then, has had to balance an ill-fitting core of parts. He has a team with guards who cannot shoot, centers who cannot score, the stagnation of Kuzma, Ingram and Ball, and at least four players (LeBron, Ingram, Stephenson, Rondo) who are most effective with the ball in their hands.
It is a tough spot to be in, especially considering Walton’s desire (or perhaps managerial edict) to balance the playing of his veterans versus his youth, at times at the expense of balancing talent.
That said, while injuries again play a part in this, there is no obvious offensive scheme, even once at full health. Whereas those such as Ingram should be redeployed as off-ball movers, there seems not to be much of a priority given to that.
Brandon Ingram scores at the rim
The team-wide poor catching-and-shooting ability aside, players are not getting open enough to create more opportunities, and the team as a unit overly relies on one-on-one drives rather than intricate cuts and screens.
The Lakers try to solve their lack of offensive efficiency with a high pace, third in the league, but it has them only 21st in the league in offensive rating.
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Not helping this is the overtness of the team’s management in letting it be known that most of the team are up for sale. The ultimately unsuccessful negotiations for Davis, taking place as transparently as they did, surely will affect team chemistry and serve to demotivate those most directly involved.
How discouraging must it be to a young player to develop with a team only to find out that team is openly trying to move them, regardless of what they do? It was for a truly great player in Davis, yes, but for the players involved, so what?
Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball celebrate a basket against the Oklahoma City Thunder
A record of 28-29 is never too bad, even when relative to expectation and the 46-win pace that the Lakers are playing at when LeBron is healthy.
The franchise is still ‘Hollywood’, still historic, still alluring through the size of the brand alone. And as of right now, this Lakers team is not a bad team.
It is not exceptional, though. This is not Lakers Exceptionalism in action. And since the addition of LeBron, nor does it seem to be moving any closer to it.
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