It’s been fair to measure LeBron James’s past and present teams against each other. The Lakers and Cavaliers are not apples and oranges: The man has aged like the wine he so publicly enjoys, and, in recent years, his surrounding casts have both left something to be desired. So over the course of the 2018-19 season, it’s been possible to compare L.A. and Cleveland by record, minutes, scoring—but now the control variable changed. James played all 82 games with the 2017-18 Cavs, but he’s already missed 10 and counting in his inaugural Lakers season. Without LeBron on the floor, it’s time to stop looking to the past and to evaluate how much progress the rest of L.A.’s roster has made.
Because so many of the Lakers’ key role players are young, their development is a pressing question for the franchise. No one was expecting Tyronn Lue to teach J.R. Smith or Kyle Korver new tricks. The job description is different for Luke Walton. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are trusting him with the development of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart—all 23 years old or younger, and all starters in the absence of James and Rajon Rondo. Since the King went down on Christmas Day with a groin injury, the Lakers have gone 3-7, including losses to the Knicks and, most recently Sunday, the Cavs, who are a shell of the team James left behind. Cleveland beat them in Staples Center 101-95 without its best player in Kevin Love. JaVale McGee scored as many points as the Cavs’ last rotation player, a guy named Jaron Blossomgame. The loss marked the lowest point of the Lakers season. Or as Homer Simpson would say, the lowest point so far.
James will be reevaluated Wednesday, the three-week point since his injury. That was the minimum recovery time, and though the team announced he’s ready to “increase on-court functional basketball movements,” James won’t rush his return. He shouldn’t; the Lakers will be eaten alive in the first round if James comes back early only to aggravate that same injury. But the beginnings of a legitimate panic are surfacing: Will the Lakers make it to the first round at all? They’re currently ninth in the Western Conference standings, half a game out of the postseason. Their playoff odds are down to a grim 36 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight, and L.A. has the second-most difficult remaining strength of schedule by winning percentage of their remaining opponents (the team will face Golden State and Milwaukee twice, and Toronto and Denver once each).
The Lakers can’t afford to wait for LeBron to come back and save them. Survival depends on the team’s youth growing individually and Walton finding their best overall fit. Ingram and Ball were viewed as the young cornerstones heading into the season, but it’s been Kuzma and Hart (who couldn’t even get Lance Stephenson to include him in team pictures on Instagram) who have found more of a rhythm. Hart was a pleasant off-ball surprise alongside James (though he’s experienced a drop in production without him). Kuzma is the team’s second-leading scorer, averaging 18.8 points a game, and is leading all the Lakers’ youngins in rebounding, with 5.9 per game.
Ball told ESPN that the void left behind by James and Rondo has been especially difficult to fill because those two are L.A.’s most vocal leaders. “Having both of them out, that’s two of our main guys who are talking on the court. It’s new for me. It’s new for B.I. [Ingram]. Kuz probably talks the most out of all of us.” Kuzma’s on-court personality matches up with his play style—energetic and aggressive with a scoring mind-set—as much as Ball’s past-first, occasionally passive mentality does his. Rondo’s tried to toughen up Ball and put vigor in his game by talking smack to him in practice. “A lot of times,” Rondo said, “people don’t know what to say, so they don’t talk.”
The Lakers can’t afford for Ball or Ingram to be shy. The duo has been wildly inconsistent, which is especially worrisome given that inconsistency has been a longtime criticism of Ingram. This season Ball’s averaging 9.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 5.2 assists, while Ingram’s averaging 16.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. Ingram’s seen a slight bump in scoring without James, but is still inefficient in getting those buckets; he takes 16 shots on average to get to his new average of 18.7 points. Ball is averaging 11.8 points per game over the last 10 contests, which helps the cause but confirms that he’ll never be the team’s go-to scorer. When James returns, Walton will have to reassess Ingram’s fit with James, which was also choppy. Part of being James’s perfect teammate is adjusting to his needs; like Brendan Haywood told me at the start of the season, “Everybody’s game had to change because LeBron James is the best player in basketball. He doesn’t change to fit you. You have to change to fit him, because his style is proven to work.” Ingram’s struggled with this because he doesn’t have a well-rounded off-ball skill set.
On Monday, Kevin O’Connor wrote about how Ingram is being used incorrectly: “[He] built habits that have him looking to score first and pass second, but this season has suddenly thrust him into a situation where he should be picking his spots and finding opportunities within the flow of the offense. That’s a jarring transition to make.”
The hope heading into this season was that Ingram would grow into the second-most important player on a winning team, and that Ball would be a complimentary force. Yet neither has matured enough to fill those roles, a fact that’s been glaringly obvious without LeBron on the court. Outside Rondo, there isn’t a player on the roster who can step up to fill the void. Tyson Chandler and JaVale McGee are strictly supplemental; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is underwhelming; Lance Stephenson, like J.R. Smith, isn’t learning new tricks. By default, Kuzma’s become a leader, and he deserves credit for that. Forty-four games in, this is not the identity Los Angeles expected. As the trade deadline approaches it’s becoming more transparent that changing that identity won’t come from within.