The biggest bust of a season in Lakers history essentially ended Monday night, 18 games early and one superstar late. Dagger, administered by this city’s most stable NBA organization. Dagger, a 113-105 defeat at Staples Center at the relentless hands of the Clippers.
The Lakers’ five-year playoff drought will soon be a horrific half-dozen, as the loss dropped them 5 1/2 games out of the final playoff spot with 18 games to play.
This is bad. This is real bad. In six short months, the NBA’s marquee franchise has become the butt of its jokes and the focus of its most puzzling questions.
The Lakers brought in the greatest player on the planet to eventually lead them to a championship, yet James can’t even lead them into the playoffs? The Lakers have spent two years selling fans on bringing postseason basketball back to Staples Center this spring, and the only place they’re going is the lottery?
“We’ll keep playing until the end and see what happens,’’ James said afterward.
It turns out that James’ arrival last summer didn’t make things better, and disillusioned fans may already be tiring of his presence judging from the response to a missed layup late in Monday’s game. Yeah, you read it right, he was booed.
It also turns out that all of Magic Johnson’s and Rob Pelinka’s renewal promises will have to put on hold, their celebrated construction of a title team crumbling before our eyes, and they’ve now run the joint for two years with little to show for it.
And, finally, it turns out that since Buss took control of the team from her brothers two years ago, the only consistency has been the chaos.
Those are the three contributing factors to this mess, each providing weight to the sinking hopes. The one person not in this equation is the one person who will take the biggest fall. Coach Luke Walton will surely be fired as soon as the season ends but, really, what chance did he have? He was given a poorly constructed team led by a star who never really wanted him and run by a man who didn’t hire him. Walton made his mistakes, but this one is not on him.
The disappointment starts with James. Face it, he has barely been here this season, both physically and emotionally. He sat out 18 games because of a groin injury that proved to be an ominous sign of the wear that is suddenly evident on his 34-year-old body. He also failed in his backroom attempt to remove Walton and trade the team’s young stars for Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans.
He has recorded his usual strong statistics, but they’ve been mostly empty numbers, as he has often whiffed on defense and missed big free throws. Combined with his teammates’ failure to trust him in the wake of all that trade talk, his personal storm has turned him into a basically ineffective superstar.
And you have to wonder, how much has he been distracted by all of his movie, television and recording projects, at least three of which have either launched or been announced during the season?
Perhaps one example of James’ lack of focus occurred during his postgame interview after Saturday’s debacle at Phoenix. When he was describing the embarrassing play in which he clanked an inbounds pass off the back of the backboard, he described the play wrong.
Except that it was Tyson Chandler on the floor, not McGee, and when was the last time James made that kind of mistake?
Also to blame are the guys who brought James here, Johnson and Pelinka. They celebrated his signing in the oddest of ways, by signing eccentric and mismatched veterans who failed to complement him or improve the team.
Everyone saw it. They needed a shooter and didn’t sign one. Everyone knew it. They need a strong inside presence and didn’t acquire one. The result was a disparate squad of kids and kooks.
The wreckage they helped create could haunt them into summer, as Johnson and Pelinka must now convince a top free agent to join a team with a suddenly aging star, mostly unproven kids and a coach picked by James, whose ability as a general manager is questionable.
Finally, there is blame on Buss, who has thus far escaped much criticism, but she did famously hire Johnson and Pelinka, and recently her front office showed more signs of discord.
In an appearance at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last week, Buss disparaged the media while oddly disputing the terms of the Davis offer.
“The biggest challenge for [us is] the ‘fake news’ about how we were supposedly trading our entire roster for a certain player, which is completely not true,’’ Buss said.
It was completely true. The names of dangled players was accurate, sourced, and verified, first by The Times’ Broderick Turner and later by the rest of the NBA insiders.
Yes, the Lakers offered Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Ingram, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley and two first-round picks.
So either Buss was channeling her inner Trump by trying to blame a leak on the media, or somebody in her front office is not telling her the truth about their offer. Either option is a bad one, and either option would highlight a front office instability that was supposed to have ended when she took control of the team.
Yeah, things are pretty messy around Los Angeles’ most celebrated sports franchise these days, the dagger on the 2018-2019 season officially administered Monday night when Patrick Beverley flexed his biceps and glared into the crowd.
Clipper Strong. Lakers Done.