After the Celtics beat the Lakers 120-107 on Saturday, and after Kyrie Irving and LeBron James embraced and employed their old handshake, the two former teammates wanted to chat. They were still on the court as cameras rolled and phones recorded them, so talking had to be done with warm-ups pulled over their mouths to avoid potential lipreadings. This is a favorite tactic of James’s. He’s done the postgame warm-up pull-up many times this season to communicate with other players, and each time it looks like both men are agreeing that something smells really, really bad. Irving and James’s shielded conversation lasted a little longer than usual; between the two, there was plenty of shit to shoot. Irving’s Celtics have not met expectations this season—despite being in the fifth spot in the East, they were meant for much more. Meanwhile, James’s Lakers are all but eliminated from the playoffs at this point. A raw team inherited by one of the greatest players in history, we never really knew what these Lakers were meant for, unlike Boston. However, now that Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, two of their most important young players, are shut down for the season, we do know their fate a little early.
Los Angeles announced that Ingram’s season was over on Saturday. After a stretch of greatly improved play—Ingram averaged 22.5 points on 52 percent shooting from February on—it was determined that his recent shoulder injury was caused by a blood clot in his arm. Reports also came out on Saturday indicating that Lonzo Ball will end his sophomore year early because of the Grade 3 ankle sprain that’s kept him out of action since January 21. Two days earlier, James was put on a minutes restriction (that included him likely resting on the second night of remaining back-to-backs) by the team. That was a white flag for the team, whose serious injury reports would soon drop.
There’s no clear answer for when to give up on a James team. After the 3-1 comeback in the 2016 Finals, the right answer feels like never, but when James and the organization are limiting his time on court, it’s probably safe to call it a season. The chances of the Lakers making the playoffs became increasingly slim over the past month and are down to less than 1 percent, which raises the question of how to define this Lakers season. Is it a failure if L.A. wraps in early April, or is it the necessary beginning of a longer plan?
The 2018-19 season was never going to be an easy transition to the West for James, even with perfect team health. The front office was outplayed by other organizations this summer; it couldn’t sign a star like Paul George to complement James, and it couldn’t out-savvy those who brought on minor, Moneyball-focused pieces who would develop nicely later. L.A. signed a meme team with no obvious starting five. Chalking the issues up to a “lack of depth” isn’t fitting when the line was already so lenient for who qualified to be in the starting lineup. The Lakers were built like an NBA Nature Valley bar, ready-made to crumble, and when real impact hit—James’s groin injury on Christmas Day—they did just that.
Shutting down Ball and Ingram and limiting James essentially put a lid on this season—and put the focus on the future. But the Lakers need to reflect on how they got here for this summer’s free agency, which is about as difficult to forecast as this past season was. The best-case scenario is for the Lakers to sign a major free agent or acquire a star, which solves an upfront talent problem but could perpetuate their depth problem, depending on the assets they’d have to give up. Their worst-case scenario is another year of one-season misfit signings. Either way, it’s more wear on James.
Even Irving, watching from afar with his own drama, knows L.A. is calling it a night. “I feel for him,” Irving said after the game Saturday. “Bron has always been a championship contender. He’s such a great player, such a great teammate. When you’re not eligible to qualify for the playoffs, it’s hard, I can only imagine.” Resorting to waving the white flag is a disappointing end for James’s 16th year and his first as a Laker, but it is a temporary resolution. This Lakers season finally has a definitive label: over.