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Lakers

Column: Lakers’ lack of leadership and direction will leave LeBron James with biggest burden

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. -- SATURDAY, MARCH 9, 2019: Lakers LeBron James drives to the basket as Celtics
LeBron James drives to the basket as the Celtics’ Al Horford defends in the fourth quarter at Staples Center.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

In the final review of this nuclear meltdown of a season, the Lakers didn’t need a savior as much as a resurrection.

Specifically, the resurrection of Jerry Buss.

They now have the Chosen One in LeBron James, but that didn’t spare them the indignity of throwing in the towel on another failed campaign Saturday, when Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball were ruled out for the remainder of the season. The team moved closer to its official elimination with a 120-107 defeat to the Boston Celtics, themselves no symbol of stability.

The Lakers are ravaged by injuries and deprived of talent, but above all, they are without direction. And that’s more or less how they have operated since the late patriarch of the Buss family relinquished control of the storied franchise to his well-intentioned but overmatched offspring.

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“Always question the judgments of people who didn’t make their own money,” an older friend once told me, and nothing in the track records of Jeanie Buss or her since-exiled brother Jim has contradicted that piece of wisdom. Never mind the blame-the-media gambit Jeanie attempted last week at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston.

Compare the Lakers to their co-tenants in Staples Center. The difference is astounding.

The Clippers have an identity. They know who they are. They know what they want to do and they know where they are headed. Owner Steve Ballmer is a significant part of that, not only for issuing clear marching orders but also empowering the right people to execute them.

Jeanie Buss, the controlling owner of the Lakers, placed her franchise in the hands of the inexperienced Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka.

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The most that can be said about the Lakers is they know who they used to be. That vision of their glorious history is what they are desperately holding on to.

But the past is a dangerous place to live, as doing so can be interpreted by others as arrogance.

The Lakers didn’t make a serious attempt to trade for Paul George, as if they figured he would come to them as a free agent simply because they were the Lakers. They were wrong.

They could have made a similar mistake with Kawhi Leonard. The verdict will be rendered this coming offseason.

They allowed themselves to be suckered into drafting Ball because of his made-for-Hollywood story.

Johnson and Pelinka created the salary cap space that was necessary to sign James, but neglected to make plans beyond that.

The Lakers are caught in some awkward place between a youth movement and trying to win now. So of the four lottery picks they had in the last five years, the two best players from that group are playing elsewhere, Julius Randle with the New Orleans Pelicans and D’Angelo Russell with the Brooklyn Nets.

And who knows what the Lakers were doing when they let the Clippers steal Ivica Zubac from them.

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The Lakers being the Lakers, a sacrifice will have to be made and coach Luke Walton is expected to be the victim. The widespread presumption effectively stripped Walton of his authority, further destabilizing a team already on shaky ground.

Where this lack of consistency and absence of culture count the most is in times when there are developments like the one with Ingram.

This was entirely out of the team’s control, something that could affect more than basketball, something potentially frightening.

Ingram has a blood clot in his right arm.

Walton declined to shed light on the subject.

“The details are not mine to give,” Walton said.

Say this is a long-term problem with Ingram. The Lakers aren’t positioned to deal with that kind of setback.

The leadership necessary to build any of that hasn’t been provided by ownership or management, and there’s no reason to believe that will change.The burden will belong to James, their purported savior.

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James will have to define the team’s culture. He will have to convince other star-caliber players the Lakers are a franchise for which they should want to play.

James should have a role in that, but not to the extent that will be required of him to drastically alter the franchise’s trajectory.

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dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez


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