NBA journalist Chris Lierly discusses the factors leading to the Lakers missing the playoffs despite having the league’s best player.
LeBron James will miss the NBA postseason for the first time in 14 years. As usual, the Western Conference of the NBA has a small gap between its potential third and eighth seeds for the playoffs. The Warriors and Nuggets stand atop the conference followed by the Rockets, Trailblazers, Jazz, Clippers, Thunder and Spurs. Those teams were at one point separated by less than two games, but one team is notably getting left behind.
With the first round of the playoffs starting on April 13, the Los Angeles Lakers are statistically incapable of making the NBA postseason. Though that has basically been the norm since Kobe Bryant passed his prime, the presence of LeBron on the Lakers’ roster was supposed to change all of that. At least that’s what Laker fans thought.
The bar is set higher for LeBron James than any American athlete, regardless of where he plays. Yes, he established that standard for himself when he went to Miami, but with his move to LA, a ridiculous amount of Kobe successor expectations were placed on him by what is one of the worst fanbases in all of sports. The Los Angeles Lakers are a poorly-run franchise stoked by a rabidly nostalgic fanbase and sadly, it might make up the last quarter of LeBron’s career.
A front office led by Jeanie Buss, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka has refused to decide whether the Lakers are rebuilding or trying to compete in the short term, and that indecisiveness swept LeBron into a storm of chaos. Three years ago, the pair of D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle looked to be the future for the Lakers, and that was honestly a bright future. However, by trading Russell for trade rights to Kyle Kuzma in order to make way for Lonzo Ball, and then dropping Randle to prepare for LeBron, they abruptly changed course,seemingly without knowing where they were headed.
Kuzma and Ball are both high-quality players, but pairing two rookies with an aging legend is a perplexing move. If the Lakers wanted to bet the future of their team around a few young stars and the pieces they could place around them over the next few years, then that would have been an understandable path. If they wanted to trade young stars and picks to get the pieces needed to win a championship with LeBron now, then that too would have made sense. Instead, they’ve decided to put a few inexperienced young stars around the best player in the history of the game who probably has little patience to play with first and second year players.
If this front office insanity wasn’t enough, the Lakers’ fanbase is far too unhinged to take any of that with a cool head. Whether that means defacing a mural of LeBron in Los Angeles or defending anything Lonzo Ball does, Lakers’ fans have proven to be the clowns throwing gasoline on the fire to every problem the organization faces. Most fans were probably alive for the team’s last Finals win in 2010, and that has imbued the entire fanbase with a mentality that championships are within reach. But the reasons for not competing are in no way due to their demands for instant and sustained success.
The NBA of 2010 and 2019 are universes apart. In 2010, Kobe won a Finals with a solid lineup: Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Ron Artest, Derek Fisher and Andrew Bynum to name the best. However, that team today would be lucky to make a conference finals. The stars in the NBA have consolidated to a few major teams, and the Lakers are not one of them.
The NBA world is changing, and LeBron’s Lakers are getting left behind. If he spends his last few years in a team that struggles to make the playoffs, we shouldn’t forget the years he spent dominating all facets of the game in a way no one else ever has. LeBron is not without fault for the Lakers missing the playoffs, but the front office and the fans are much more to blame than anyone that actually puts on the purple and gold in the Staples Center.