LeBron James has split the past dozen years of his career into three four-season segments, each in a different city. The results in his latest stint, in Los Angeles, are by far the worst.
In four seasons as a member of the Heat, LeBron reached four Finals, winning two. In four seasons in his return to the Cavaliers, LeBron reached four more Finals, winning one. And in four seasons thus far as a Laker, LeBron’s won one championship, lost once in the first round of the playoffs, and failed to reach the postseason twice.
A title is a title, and the Lakers’ 2020 banner will fly forever. But despite tremendous expectations coming into the 2021-22 season, the Lakers have been officially eliminated even from play-in contention, with seven consecutive losses dropping them to 11th place in the West. The final blow came Tuesday night, courtesy of a Suns team that Anthony Davis claimed “got away with one” in their series last postseason because he was injured.
“Extremely disappointed,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel told reporters after the blowout loss. “Disappointed for our fan base. Disappointed for the Buss family, who gave us all this opportunity, and we want to play our part in bringing success to Laker basketball and we fell short.”
Now, Vogel is expected to be fired two years after winning a championship, and the Lakers will head to the draft lottery, where they will promptly hand over their pick to either the Pelicans (if it lands in the top 10) or the Grizzlies (if it falls outside).
This season is the greatest disappointment in LeBron’s career, even if he qualifies for and then outscores Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo for the scoring title. But are the 2021-22 Lakers, overall, the greatest disappointment in NBA history?
It may be hard to recall, but with James, Davis, and newly acquired Russell Westbrook, Los Angeles was the no. 2 preseason betting favorite to win the championship, behind only the Nets. Never mind that the roster looked incredibly old or that Westbrook didn’t seem like a great fit on this roster or that the Lakers had just lost in the first round of the playoffs to a better Suns team. (Davis was indeed injured in that series, but so was Chris Paul.) The Lakers had star power and a championship pedigree and the sheen of a top contender.
But the Lakers fell, and they fell hard. They didn’t just fail to compete for a title— they didn’t even make the expanded play-in field. With a 31-48 record and three games remaining—including contests at Golden State and Denver—they might lose 50 games.
It’s difficult to gauge each team’s preseason outlook in the earliest NBA decades, but we can at least start in 1984-85, which is the first season for which Basketball-Reference lists preseason title odds. Among the betting favorites over that span, the Lakers immediately shoot to the bottom; this graph shows the ultimate result for every other top-two favorite entering the season:
Only two other favorites missed the playoffs, both from the same season. In 2004-05, three teams were tied for the second-favorite slot after the Spurs—who eventually won the title—and two of the three faltered: Minnesota, which went 44-38 after reaching the Western Conference finals the previous summer, and the Lakers, who went 34-48 after trading Shaquille O’Neal to Miami.
So assuming that Brooklyn makes it out of the play-in, only three of the 83 top-two favorites on record will have missed the playoffs. The 2021-22 Lakers are one—and, unless they win their last three games, they will also collect the worst record of the bunch.
But wait, the historical comparisons get even worse. B-Ref also lists over/under win totals dating back to the 1999-00 season. The Lakers, with a mark of 52.5 this preseason, are one of 149 teams this century projected to win at least 50 games (or the equivalent of 50 out of 82 games in a shorter season). And out of that 149-team group, the Lakers will almost certainly fall short of their over/under total by the widest margin.
Greatest Underachievers Among Teams Projected to Win 50-Plus Games
|31 to 34
|-18.5 to -21.5
|41 to 44
|-12.5 to -15.5
One other Lakers outfit makes the list: the “Now This Is Going to Be Fun” 2012-13 Lakers, who entered the season with enormous expectations after adding Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. They fell 13.5 wins short of their over/under but at least won 45 games and reached the playoffs. The 2021-22 version can’t say that much.
To be fair, these Lakers aren’t the greatest underachiever among all teams this century. That dishonor belongs to the 2007-08 Heat, who traded Shaq midseason, lost Dwyane Wade to injuries, and tanked for better draft lottery odds down the stretch as they won just 15 games versus a projected 46.5. But that Heat team’s over/under ranked 12th in the league; they weren’t expected to be a top contender like the 2021-22 Lakers, and the disappointment is so much more visceral when a prospective favorite falls flat.
Injuries hampered the Lakers’ efforts to meet expectations, of course, as they did for many teams on that chart. The previous greatest underachiever was the 2005-06 Rockets, who lost both Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming for large swaths of the schedule.
The Lakers—like most teams this season—lost numerous players to injury, too, most notably James and Davis for a combined 60 games. Davis alone missed roughly half the season with multiple injuries and has recently blamed injuries for the team’s downfall.
“Our goal was to win a championship,” Davis said Tuesday. “Feel like we had the pieces, but injuries got in the way of that. And that was the difference in the season.”
Yet while injuries certainly didn’t help, the Lakers were outscored even when James and Davis played together, as well as by themselves.
Lakers With and Without Their Superstars
|James and Davis together
|Neither James nor Davis
Judging the Lakers so harshly is not merely a product of selective memory. They didn’t win a title, didn’t reach the Finals, didn’t even qualify for the play-in game as the 10th-best team out of 15 in a shallow Western Conference. Statistically, among teams projected to contend for a title, the 2021-22 Lakers are the largest underachiever for as far back as we have data. At least this team made some sort of history.