It’s hard to overstate how big a disaster the LeBron James Lakers have been. As James teeters toward missing the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, everybody on or around the team becomes more unhappy. James is miserable. The team’s promising youngsters, who used to be excited about playing for the Lakers before it became clear that James wanted to trade them, are miserable. The team’s veterans, who signed up to play in L.A. with the apparent hope of sharing James’s glory, are miserable. The team’s coaches, eagerly awaiting pink slips, are miserable. The team’s fans, who yearn for Kobe, are miserable.
But for whom has this season been the worst? Here’s a brief look at some of the Lakers who have failed, or the people who have been failed by the Lakers, starting with the tangential disappointments and leading up to the major disappointments.
The era of Anthony playing meaningful basketball is over. That much was made clear last season, when Melo was essentially unplayable for Oklahoma City, and reinforced by the events of this season, when Melo was sent home after only 10 games with Houston. Anthony was eventually cut by a team whose fans once Photoshopped images of him in their jerseys, and it wasn’t a big deal. That’s how far he’s fallen.
But LeBron can always find work for old friends. James’s longtime Cleveland teammate Zydrunas Ilgauskas found a roster spot on the Heat in 2010; Miami teammates Mike Miller and James Jones followed LeBron when he returned to Cleveland, and Dwyane Wade briefly reunited with LeBron in Cleveland last season. Carmelo is one of LeBron’s oldest, best friends; it seemed certain LeBron would scoop up Melo, even if it was just to have a friend in the locker room.
But it wasn’t to be. This week, it was reported that with the Lakers slipping out of playoff contention, Melo wouldn’t join the team. Both the Lakers and Carmelo reportedly agreed their relationship would’ve made sense only if the team were playing competitive games; the Lakers would rather use meaningless minutes on developing and showcasing youth, and Carmelo can’t be bothered to play garbage time. (It’s unclear why the Lakers thought giving meaningful minutes to Carmelo would have been a good idea, but I digress.)
There have been so many disappointments related to the Lakers’ season, and here is the smallest: The Lakers are so bad that Carmelo Anthony can’t use them as a vehicle to hang out with his friend.
Before this season, the highlights of Stephenson’s career were often defined by LeBron James, which is to say that they were actually lowlights. He blew in LeBron’s ear that one time! (And lost!) He tormented LeBron in last season’s playoffs! (And lost!) But this season, he got the call-up to the big show: LeBron wanted the pesky Stephenson as a teammate. Dedicating your career to trolling one person and then having that person ask you to join their side has to be pretty validating.
Stephenson’s season hasn’t been awful—he’s shooting well from 3 consistently for the basically first time in his career—but it has to be crushing that joining LeBron hasn’t brought him a reprieve from mockery. Stephenson tried to make some sort of air guitar celebration his gimmick for the season, but that didn’t quite work out. Russell Westbrook and Lou Williams promptly appropriated the move to make fun of Stephenson.
Russell Westbrook trolls Lance Stevenson to end the half with the air guitar. pic.twitter.com/H0dXeW1Gf0— Manouk Akopyan (@Manouk_Akopyan) January 3, 2019
Stephenson is also responsible for perhaps the saddest individual news story about the Lakers this year: In February, he told Indianapolis fans he’d meet them at Hooters after a Lakers-Pacers game. Fans packed the Hooters, and the restaurant reserved Stephenson’s favorite table (it’s shaped like the state of Indiana), but Stephenson didn’t show up.
The Ball Family
Do you remember when the Balls were the biggest story in sports? In, like August 2017, if LaVar Ball screamed “LAMELO BETTER THAN DOLPH SCHAYES!” at a TMZ camera at 8:30 a.m., 47 websites would have posts entitled “You Won’t Believe What LaVar Ball Said About Dolph Schayes” by 10, and my editor would be texting me, “Hey, Rodger, no rush, but the Dolph Schayes piece is kinda time-sensitive, how’s it coming along?” The Balls would’ve been captivating no matter what, but Lonzo Ball’s story as the L.A. kid who went to UCLA and then became the apparent franchise player of the Lakers (who, remember, traded away D’Angelo Russell before drafting Ball) made it seem as if the Ball Family Plan for World Domination was actually working. Lonzo was the biggest thing in Los Angeles, and the biggest thing in Los Angeles is often the biggest thing in the world.
The calculus of this changed when LeBron showed up. Lonzo was no longer the biggest thing in L.A., but there was still plenty of value in being LeBron’s sidekick. There was still a future in which LeBron brought the Lakers glory with Lonzo by his side.
But it’s been clear since LeBron’s move that Ball wasn’t really part of L.A.’s long-term plans. There was trade noise surrounding Ball last summer when the Lakers tried to land Kawhi Leonard (a deal that may have been scuttled because the Ball camp leaked word that Lonzo was injured). And this year, the Lakers reportedly tried to throw Lonzo into a package for Anthony Davis—and not even as the primary piece in the deal, but one part in a massive eight-piece combo meal deal that came with a soda and fries. LaVar hated the idea so thoroughly that he started lobbying for a potential trade that wasn’t even rumored, saying that he would “speak into existence” a Lonzo trade to Phoenix. But Lonzo remained in Los Angeles—not because of LaVar, but because the Pelicans decided that Ball, 17 prospects, and the promise of walk-on roles in Space Jam 2 wasn’t good enough.
Meanwhile, LaVar’s various ventures have fallen short: LiAngelo and LaMelo played briefly for a Lithuanian team before quickly coming home, LaVar’s attempt at launching a basketball league came and went with barely a blip, and Big Baller Brand shoes still aren’t shipping.
It’s funny, because this season has proved how valuable Lonzo can be: When he got injured in mid-January, the Lakers were 25-22. Since then, they’ve gone 5-13 and fallen out of playoff contention and into disaster mode. Lonzo’s not responsible for this disaster, but LeBron has never treated Lonzo as part of the plan, and LeBron’s plan has now superseded the Ball Family Plan for World Domination.
LeBron’s coaches are like Spinal Tap drummers. Mike Brown died in a bizarre gardening accident, David Blatt spontaneously combusted on stage, Tyronn Lue choked to death on vomit, although nobody knows whose, because you can’t dust for vomit. In theory, coaching LeBron should be the easiest job in the world—he’s LeBron!—but in reality, it’s a thankless post. LeBron’s coach has to straddle the thin line between placating James and getting the most out of him. If a coach wins and pisses James off, he loses the job. If a coach loses, he also loses the job, because how did you lose games with LeBron?
Suffice it to say, Walton has failed to straddle that line. In 2016, Walton was hired to oversee a Lakers rebuild after going 39-4 as a Warriors interim coach. That rebuild gave Walton leeway as he adjusted to his role as an NBA head coach—he could tinker and learn, because the wins and losses didn’t really matter. Enter LeBron, and suddenly Walton’s job transformed to trying to maximize James’s waning prime. With James, there is no margin for error.
The Lakers won’t even make the playoffs, which should ensure Walton’s time will soon be done. It’s unclear exactly how much blame he deserves for the team’s failures—more than none, less than all—but it is clear that he’ll be an easy scapegoat when the team looks to move on from this disaster of a season.
Bayless soared from one of hundreds of television sports yellers to a multimillionaire in part through his incessant criticism of LeBron. You’d think he’d be more thrilled than anybody that LeBron’s season is an unmitigated disaster.
But no: Bayless has always needed LeBron to perform reasonably well to craft high-level controversial takes. Case in point: Bayless’s history of criticizing LeBron directly after James hit game-winning shots. When James went deep into the postseason each year, anti-James takes riled up LeBron supporters and resonated with his critics. Now that James’s team is just kinda crappy, what is Skip supposed to do? Apparently, desperately beg LeBron to figure it the hell out:
I still believe LeBron James will make the playoffs.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) March 2, 2019
I still think LeBron James' team will make the playoffs. But now I'm not sure how. His Lakers just hit bottom by losing to the bottom.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) March 3, 2019
THE LAKERS ARE DOWN BY 19 WITH 10 MINUTES LEFT AT PHOENIX! Come on, Bron, save the season.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) March 3, 2019
Skip needs this as much as anybody. It must hurt terribly to lose your muse.
Magic Johnson and Everybody Else in the Lakers’ Front Office
Don’t forget that LeBron James is actually having a pretty good season. He’s above his career averages in field goal percentage, 3-point field goal percentage, assists per game, rebounds per game, and just barely off his career points per game average (27.2 for his career, 27.1 this season). It’s not the best season of his career, and his defense has been memeable, but with regard to personal statistics, it’s been an above-average season for one of the greatest players of all time.
The Lakers are awful because this roster is composed to preserve cap space for next offseason rather than help LeBron in the present. The best players on the roster are youngsters like Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, who should be developing with low consequences. The veterans are all journeymen. James plays best when surrounded with exceptional shooters; the players leading the team in 3-point percentage this season are Lance Stephenson (a career 31.5 percent shooter) and Rajon Rondo (a career 31.3 percent shooter). James’s supporting cast is worse even than the talent-poor supporting casts that left James carrying massive loads his final few years in Cleveland.
The Lakers are bad because given the opportunity to help one of the best players of all time succeed, the front office completely failed. Every player added after LeBron was neither a quality player nor one designed to facilitate James’s skills. Every opportunity to swing a blockbuster trade faltered. This isn’t just poor management. Wasting a season of a player as talented as James is front office malpractice.
I’m a LeBron James stan. I’m the guy who argued on this site that his legacy deserved comparisons to Michael Jordan’s, and that there were multiple pathways for him to become the greatest player of all time. I ride for his successes, defend his failures, and genuinely care about him as a person.
So please trust my sincerity when I say that this season has been an indefensible disaster for James; it’s by far the most embarrassing and disappointing stretch of his career. Sure, there have been embarrassing, disappointing moments before—like when he proclaimed that he’d win seven-plus titles with the Heat, and then lost to a less-talented Mavericks team in the 2011 NBA Finals—but man, that happened in the NBA Finals. This season, James said he was going to “activate playoff mode” because his team needed to make the playoffs, then lost games to the eighth-place Clippers, 12th-place Pelicans, 14th-place Grizzlies, and 15th-place Suns. We’ve seen LeBron falter against the NBA’s best, and we’ve seen him look lackadaisical in the regular season before, but he’s always been great enough to beat every mediocre and bad team in his way. This season, he’s losing to tanking teams during a critical stretch.
James seems profoundly unbothered by all of this. He’s pumping out TV shows and announcing movies and having a swell time on Instagram. (I cannot wait for the “just passed MJ!” post after a loss that even further dooms the team’s playoff hopes.) It’s hard to argue he cares when there is a full highlight reel of defensive plays where he’s entirely stopped playing basketball.
And sure, the team around him is trash, and some blame for that belongs on the front office and coaching. But isn’t this what LeBron chose? There were better basketball options on the table last offseason as he plotted the next phase of his career.
On the one hand, James has earned this. He spent most of this decade playing 40 minutes a game, 100 games a year, carrying Cleveland and Miami deep into the postseason. He won three rings. He got criticized for not bringing Cleveland a championship, so he fixed that and brought Cleveland a championship with probably the best individual performance in Finals history. And none of it ever pleased critics, so why bother with more? If James wants to sit in the sun, watch his kids grow up, drink wine, and make movies, that’s his call. He could’ve retired after 2016 and moved on—in fact, judging from the fact Jordan retired twice and gets practically no flack for it, maybe that would’ve been the best career move for LeBron.
Instead, James has chosen this limbo, where he’s playing, losing, and smiling. James doesn’t seem to be sad, but this still seems like the saddest possible outcome for him.