LeBron James faced reporters Tuesday, a microphone in his hand, another loss on his résumé and a list of reasons to remain optimistic about the Lakers’ season on his brain. Tuesday’s defeat to the Mavericks wasn’t L.A.’s worst loss of the season, but it was a loss, one that pushed the Lakers closer to mid-April exit.
“Until you stomp me out, cut my head off, bury me 12 feet under, then I’ve got a chance,” James said. “That’s my confidence.”
Officially L.A. has 21 games left, but let’s face it: It’s a wrap. The loss to Dallas dropped the Lakers to 27–34 on the season. They have lost 15 of their last 21 games. They finished a four-game home stand at 1–3. Anthony Davis, out with a foot injury, isn’t close to returning, and the Lakers weren’t particularly good when he played. The most fight they showed in a 28-point loss to the Pelicans on Sunday was with the home fans.
Tuesday’s loss wasn’t awful. The Lakers battled. They erased a 15-point half-time deficit. In the third quarter. James (26 points) caught fire from three. But the defense, as it has been all season, was leaky. And the offense, as it’s had trouble with all year, struggled to manufacture points down the stretch.
“It hurts,” said Lakers coach Frank Vogel. “When you fall short it hurts. But we have a resilient group, mentally tough group.”
O.K. But two days earlier, Russell Westbrook told reporters that the scouting report against L.A. was just to play harder than them.
The Lakers are a few months from a reckoning. They could make the playoffs—if the season ended today, L.A. would face New Orleans in the play-in—but the Lakers are going nowhere. They are old. They look tired. Westbrook doesn’t fit. Davis hasn’t been the same since a superlative performance in the bubble. LeBron is still LeBron, but at 37 he can’t carry them.
Decisions are coming. Bill Plaschke, the influential L.A. Times columnist, has called for the Lakers to trade LeBron. Even if you’re not ready to go that far, what does it say about the state of the Lakers that it’s even considered realistic? James has a year left on his contract and spent All-Star weekend openly flirting with a Cleveland return. If James doesn’t sign a contract extension this summer, L.A. may not have a choice.
And why would James sign an extension? The NBA salary cap is reportedly projected to be $121 million next season. The combined salaries of James, Westbrook and Davis are around $130 million. Westbrook, who is owed $47 million in the final year of his deal, becomes more tradable this summer, but any team acquiring Westbrook will want to offload bad contracts onto the Lakers’ books. L.A. will have the ability to trade two future first-round picks next summer—in 2027 and ’29—but the risk of offloading picks that far into the future is sizable.
Even if, in 2018, James signed with the Lakers for reasons beyond basketball, James, still playing at an All-NBA level, still wants to win basketball games. L.A. may not offer him a chance to do that.
There will be changes. Frank Vogel will be gone. He will be fired by Rob Pelinka and Kurt Rambis—at some point, there needs to be a deep dive done on how Rambis, who has a 72–173 record as an NBA coach, and his wife Linda Rambis, have amassed this much power in an NBA organization—and sent on his way. He won’t deserve it; Vogel, he of the back-to-back top-three defenses, one of which backboned the Lakers’ 2020 championship, didn’t just forget how to coach. But something will need to change immediately and the easiest thing to change is the coach.
The roster will be overhauled. Including Westbrook, the Lakers have five players under contract for next season. Six, if you include Kendrick Nunn, who will likely exercise his player option. Seven, if L.A. picks up the cheap team option on Stanley Johnson. That leaves roughly half a roster to fill with a couple of cap exceptions and minimum-salary slots.
Not exactly the kind of flexibility you need to build a winner.
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There’s no hot take here. That’s because there’s no quick fix. The Lakers needed Anthony Davis to be the player he was in the 2020 playoffs, when he averaged 28 points and connected on 38% of his threes. Instead, Davis’s body has failed him the last two seasons while his jump shot has regressed. They need a do-over with Kyle Lowry, who the Lakers could have acquired—and subsequently re-signed—had they been willing to include Talen Horton-Tucker in a deal with the Raptors last winter. And, it should go without saying, they should not have done the trade for Westbrook.
James wasn’t ready to concede anything Tuesday. “We got to try to win one basketball game right now,” James said. But even he can’t pull the Lakers out of this, L.A. is sinking, quickly. The question isn’t whether the Lakers can salvage this season, but the next.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism