On Saturday, the Los Angeles Lakers put another major stake in the heart of a disappointing campaign. The team announced that superstar forward LeBron James would be shut down for the remainder of the season. Recent dialogue has centered around the groin injury that had kept James out and he has not fully recovered. While James sitting out is certainly newsworthy, there are only a handful of regular season games remaining. And with the team having already been eliminated from playoff contention, this development is further confirmation that this season has not gone according to plan.
However, there is still plenty to look forward to. The Lakers have been solidifying a stronger foothold in next season’s draft lottery. Even a slightly better chance of moving up and being able to select Duke forward Zion Williamson would be worth the losses. A season derailed partly by injuries with a better upcoming draft pick has been the norm the last few seasons as the playoffs have remained elusive.
While the Lakers had appeared to have an effective tanking strategy, this past week has been counterproductive. Besides a loss to the Utah Jazz, the Lakers racked up wins against the Sacramento Kings, Washington Wizards and the Charlotte Hornets. James sitting out comes a day after the most recent win. While the odds remain long for moving up and into range for a top pick, they get worse with each win. Thankfully, five of the remaining six games are against playoff teams.
While season one with James did not meet expectations, James is under contract for the next few seasons. That type of long-term team contract security is something that the Cavaliers never enjoyed when James returned following his stint in Miami as James continually played on one-year contracts with player options. With a longer than usual offseason upcoming, James can spend more time getting healthy and refocus his efforts on next season while the Lakers can continue to build the roster around James.
Among the young core players, Kyle Kuzma again proved to be the most durable. Brandon Ingram recently went down with an unexpected blood clot issue and Lonzo Ball was shut down due to lingering foot issues. Both Ingram and Ball showed signs of significant improvement at various points this season and if health permits, their play next year alone can be part of a huge step forward.
Another step forward would be stabilizing the perception put forth by the front office. Constant, detailed trade rumors involving the entire young core may have contributed a level of disruption to team chemistry. Many were confused when the Lakers traded Ivica Zubac at the trade deadline and then upset to hear recent reports as to how that trade went through. Basketball Insiders spoke to Zubac recently about having been traded from the Lakers.
“It feels good. It feels good that they missed me, that they liked me and all that stuff. It feels good hearing that other teams want you so that’s always good to hear. But I’m a Clipper now and I’m only focused on the Clippers and that’s my team,” Zubac said told Basketball Insiders.
This season the team relied heavily on veterans brought in on one-year contracts. Rajon Rondo has been the most prominent and arguably the most controversial of this group. Players like Tyson Chandler and especially JaVale McGee have had productive stretches. The team may benefit from moving beyond the type of combustible personalities and inconsistent contributions from players like Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley (already traded). Both McGee and Rondo have signaled in the past few days they would like the opportunity to return.
“Of course I wouldn’t mind coming back to the L.A. Lakers,” McGee told Kevin Ding. “If they feel they need me, then they’ll bring me back.
“Absolutely,” Rondo told ESPN regarding a possible return to the Lakers. “I mean, the only way we can go from here is up.”
With Ball’s ongoing injuries, Rondo did help secure the point guard position. Yet his defensive shortcomings and erratic behavior certainly helped to offset these contributions. McGee, on the other hand, helped to disprove his reputation as a distraction and may have played his way to something better than a one-year, veteran’s minimum contract. Once injuries took their toll this season, the additional veterans were not able to keep the Lakers afloat and in the playoff hunt.
Looking forward, the Lakers are again looking to secure another star free-agent. The Lakers were well positioned to sign Paul George last offseason. Eric Pincus recently explained for Bleacher Report that should the Lakers strike out on the first tier of available star free agents this upcoming offseason, that Jimmy Butler would be a realistic possibility. That first tier would include Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Kyrie Irving.
Philadelphia has a star-laden team and has to worry about retaining fellow unrestricted free agents Tobias Harris (who Philadelphia paid a high price to obtain) and guard J.J. Redick. Outside of Butler, guard Kemba Walker may very well be another obtainable star to pair alongside James should Walker finally grow too impatient with the ongoing stagnation with the Hornet’s franchise.
Despite the dysfunctional nature of trade talks with the Pelicans during this year’s trade deadline, there remains the possibility that the team will again pursue Anthony Davis this offseason. Attempting to trade for Davis appeared to cement the notion that anyone (outside of James) is moveable. Should the team not acquire Davis, the Lakers should take advantage of the opportunity to bolster the talent around James, balance the roster and allow the younger players to play in a more stable environment.
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