It sometimes feels like they never left, but throughout the last decade the Los Angeles Lakers slipped into the sort of NBA irrelevance usually saved for rebuilding teams in the southeast.
When you sign the best player in the league – and arguably the greatest player of all time – while he’s still in his prime, your goal for the season should be the NBA championship.
Therefore, given the Lakers were fortunate enough to acquire LeBron James this past off-season, their goal for the 2018-19 season should be the title. But is it?
LeBron James just turned 34 years of age and is in his sixteenth season in the NBA. It’s incredible that he could still be in his prime, but he certainly is. Though his intensity isn’t there game-to-game, and – in an understatement for the ages – he isn’t always ‘locked in’ on the defensive end, he remains the best player on the planet.
That fact is rammed home come playoff time, when LeBron removes any doubt that he’s still the best. Last year’s playoff run with a mediocre Cleveland team might be the most impressive I’ve seen from one player, as LeBron simply eviscerated opponents game-after-game on his way once more to the Finals.
Yet as great as LeBron still is, he is much closer to the end of his career than he is the start. Father Time remains undefeated, and LeBron being sidelined at present with a groin injury has reminded us all of that. We should savour every minute he is on the court because he won’t be playing forever.
Which brings us nicely to the Lakers and the window of opportunity they have left with LeBron.
Unfortunately, the current Lakers roster is one that’s split into two completely different timelines.
In LeBron, Rajon Rondo, Tyson Chandler and JaVale McGee, you have a core that is built to win now. OK, as good as he’s been this season, including JaVale in that group is a bit of a stretch, along with a slight insult to the other three, but the point is, those guys are at the tail-end of their careers and don’t really have time on their side. They’re looking to win right now.
Conversely, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart represent the other core of the Lakers, and they’re young and inexperienced. Though all have shown more than enough talent to prove they’ll be in the league for a long time, none of them are presently ready to be the second-best player on a title-winning team. Nor do we know if any are guaranteed to be All-Star level players in the future.
In short, this young core needs time to develop.
For all the angst over Ball and Ingram’s play this year, it’s worth pointing out that they’re still just 21 years of age. Yes, they have unacceptably quiet games far too often. Yes, their passion and intensity has rightfully been called out. Yes, they make immature mistakes. Yes, their perimeter shooting is definitely a work-in-progress. Yes, their ultimate ceiling remains unknown, and may not be as high as many think.
However, they’re 21. That is still insanely young.
So, the Lakers have a roster that is placed at diametrically opposed stages of their careers. The two cores can be summarised as: ‘young and not ready’, versus ‘old and not long left’. Which translates to the Lakers having two goals this season: development and/or winning.
Needless to say, that creates a dilemma for Lakers’ management, because each core is inhibiting the other from achieving its goals.
So which goal should be the primary one?
It would be absolutely crazy, and borderline negligent, to waste a year of LeBron’s prime, especially at 34 years of age. Wasting a year of a 28-year old superstar’s prime is a little bit different, but at 34 you need to be competing for the title, or you’re doing a disservice to LeBron.
Yet in their current state, the Lakers are not realistic threats to win the championship. LeBron’s greatness ensures they are a dangerous team, whom everyone would like to avoid once the playoffs start, but no one is picking the Lakers to be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season.
The young players, along with other individuals on the roster, do have some trade value. It’s completely realistic that the Lakers could put together a trade package – or two – that brings in talent that could help LeBron compete for the title this season.
So why haven’t the Lakers been super aggressive in trade talks?
Well, first of all, who is to say they haven’t? Though unlikely in the modern world, perhaps any discussions with other teams simply haven’t been leaked to the public.
What’s more likely, however, is that one of the following factors is weighing on Laker management’s minds:
1. They believe the coming off-season provides them with their best chance to add another superstar player.
2. They don’t want to trade for talent if it means gutting their roster of depth, and therefore not really moving the needle enough for them to be legitimate contenders anyway.
3. They rate their young players extremely highly and don’t want to lose them.
4. They feel the current Golden State Warriors’ dynasty could come to an end this season, dramatically increasing the odds of a different team winning next year.
In fact, it may be a combination of all four factors that has seen the Lakers sit on their hands and not make a move.
With the trade deadline of February 7 looming large on the horizon, the Lakers action or inaction will be telling. Given the urgency to surround LeBron with the pieces required to challenge for the championship ASAP, if the Lakers don’t make a move before the deadline, fans can only hope that means the Lakers’ decision-makers – Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka and Jeanie Buss – are confident they can execute a plan in the off-season that will catapult them into serious championship contention for 2019/20.
Be that a trade for Anthony Davis or the signing of Kawhi Leonard, the Lakers definitely need to sign a player of that ilk to make what they’re doing this current season even remotely palatable; for the only thing worse than wasting a full season of LeBron James’ brilliance, is wasting two.
Fans, and LeBron, will be more forgiving of somewhat making up the numbers this season, if it leads to seriously contending next year. However if this season ends up being a waste for virtually nothing, the Lakers front office will have blood on their hands.
And as history tells us, having a King’s blood on your hands rarely ends well for you.