Column: Is LeBron James too old, Anthony Davis too frail? Playoff failure suggests so
It was the definition of disturbing, the epitome of embarrassing, the portrait of failure.
Anthony Davis sitting on the bench with his face completely wrapped in a towel.
LeBron James throwing the ball into the scorer’s table then helplessly turning up his palms.
Frank Vogel shaking his fist and screaming.
Profane chants from a crowd that, frankly, didn’t know what else to say.
On a stunningly sordid Thursday night at Staples Center, the Lakers’ title defense lasted about as long as Davis.
Davis was gone in the first quarter with a strained groin, and the Lakers were gone in the first round after a fractured season, wiped out by the Phoenix Suns 113-100 in Game 6 that gave the Suns a first-round series win 4-2.
Yes, this really happened. No, it is no joke that the favorites to repeat as NBA champions ended up as a punch line. Nine months after they danced off a court in the middle of Florida with the franchise’s 17th championship, the Lakers trudged off a court in downtown Los Angeles with one of the franchise’s greatest debacles.
“It’s gut-wrenching,” said Vogel.
It’s mind blowing, so surreal that many of the 8,550 fans stuck around afterward to stare at the empty court as if hoping somehow the Lakers would come back out and keep playing.
At that point, public address announcer Lawrence Tanter intoned, “Ladies and gentlemen, one more applause for the defending champs.”
There was some applause. But there were also boos. They were not unwarranted.
Anthony Davis starts for Lakers in Game 6, but lasts only 5 1/2 minutes in a season-ending loss to the Phoenix Suns, led by Devin Booker’s 47 points.
The easy narrative is that the Lakers began the season wiped out from only a 71-day break after their championship — the shortest in league history — and then stumbled with injuries to Davis and James.
The truth is more complicated, the reality more somber, the future terribly unsettled.
These Lakers collapsed because they are built around one fragile star, one aging star, and a bunch of supporting pieces that never quite fit.
These Lakers failed to defend their title because Davis can’t stay healthy, James can no longer carry the team alone, and the front office surrounded them with some massive mistakes.
These Lakers vowed to come back strong next season and challenge for another championship, but how exactly is that going to happen? Is Davis going to get tougher? Is James going to get younger? Are Rob Pelinka and Kurt Rambis and Rich Paul going to make better decisions amid a crunching salary cap?
These Lakers soared to the title only in a shortened season, and only with Davis and James playing at their peak. On Thursday night they officially flopped back to earth, and it’s possible they could remain grounded for the remaining two years of James’ contract and career unless they can find some magic somewhere.
Lakers fans react to their season coming to an end with a loss to the Phoenix Suns on June 3, 2021, at Staples Center.
It starts with Davis. He needs to build a body to match his $190-million contract. Whatever he’s been doing in the offseason, it’s not working. His training regimen is clearly lacking. His lanky frame is obviously not fit for a full NBA schedule. Maybe he needs new voices. Maybe the Lakers need more involvement.
“Obviously the number one thing for us is getting AD healthy,” said James emphatically after Thursday’s finale. “That’s No. 1.”
It’s troubling that Davis doesn’t seem to equally grasp the gravity of the situation. He acts as if he doesn’t know, or care, that the entire NBA is questioning his fitness and his toughness.
“I don’t have to prove nothing to anyone,” Davis said. “I know what I go through, what I play through, and I don’t need to prove anything to anyone and I’m not going to prove anything to anyone.”
With that attitude, he won’t.
The second issue is the growing conflict between James and Father Time. James appears to be slowly losing the battle. In the final two blowouts by Phoenix, the Lakers collapsed the moment they realized Davis wasn’t going to play, almost as if they knew James could no longer carry them.
The Lakers’ fourth-quarter comeback attempt Thursday essentially ended when, on consecutive possessions in the final three minutes, James had the ball swiped and then had his shot blocked. He had 29 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, but he only made two baskets when they were getting run out in the first quarter and again seemed incapable of inspiring greatness from others.
This was the worst postseason of his career, his first opening-round loss in 15 postseasons, and one wonders, how much better will he be next season at age 37? He will have his first full summer in two years to rest, but the clock on his basketball longevity is ticking.
“It’s been draining — mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally draining,” he said of the last two seasons, including those three months in the bubble.
The Lakers future depends on how much of him, if any, can be restored.
Then there’s the role players that surround Davis and James. Many of them were new. Few of them were effective. Last winter the Lakers’ front office was praised for greatly buffeting a championship team, but it turns out, they severely damaged it.
Dennis Schroder proved to be inconsistent and a failure in the clutch. Montrezl Harrell couldn’t play defense so he couldn’t get on the court. Marc Gasol contributed almost nothing. Wesley Matthews supplied energy only in spurts.
Then there were the two midseason decisions that spectacularly flopped.
They decided to sign Andre Drummond and guess what? In the Thursday finale, he was the only active Laker who didn’t get off the bench.
They decided not to include Talen Horton-Tucker in a trade to Toronto for Kyle Lowry and guess what? If they had made that deal, Lowry’s presence would have helped them withstand the injuries and they would probably still be playing.
Throw in the continual disappointment that is once-budding superstar Kyle Kuzma and, even with the great Alex Caruso, the Lake Show has a problem chorus.
Pelinka and Rambis and Paul need to be better. They need to take a more objective look at Paul’s clients. They need to figure out how to best fortify this team to counteract Davis’ fragility and James’ age.
In the buzz before Thursday’s game, Tanter appeared on the video screen and announced, “We are the Lakers … we don’t fold … we rise up.”
A couple of hours later they had folded.
It is frightfully uncertain when they will rise up again.
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