It appeared as though the Los Angeles Lakers would finally be making their way back to the top of the NBA mountain when they landed LeBron James in free agency. After all, James’ reign as the league’s top player was still chugging along, seemingly immune to the effects of Father Time.
With James in town, surely the team’s streak of missing the playoffs would come to an end.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, sometimes even the best-laid plans don’t yield the intended results. After taking the Island of Misfit Toys approach to free agency and surrounding James with Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, and Michael Beasley, the Lakers embarked on their 2018-2019 NBA season with a flawed roster full of one-year contracts, young players, and the NBA’s biggest star.
After a rocky start that included then-president Magic Johnson giving then-head coach Luke Walton an earful about the team’s performance, the Lakers slowly but surely adjusted to playing alongside James, who would finish Year 1 averaging 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 8.3 assists — which is right in line with his career numbers.
Just as the team was hitting their stride, disaster struck. During an uplifting win against the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day, James suffered a groin injury that would keep him out of action for over a month. The Lakers faltered without him and even once he rushed back to the court with a playoff push in mind, the team couldn’t find ways to win games. Year 1 ended with a whimper as the Lakers would be once again spending the postseason at home.
Statistically, James was as good as ever, but the eye test told a different story. His body language wasn’t great, revealing moments of frustration, and his habit of conserving energy on the defensive end stuck out like a sore thumb. While other Lakers were flying around the court, James would often be a step or two slow to contest shots, which did nothing to a Lakers fanbase that was a bit skeptical of him coming in thanks in part to their undying devotion to Kobe Bryant.
There were also moments of surprising ineptitude from James, like when he had his shot blocked by Mario Hezonja at the buzzer or when he threw an inbound pass off the backboard. Whether these ugly plays were a result of apathy, aging, or perhaps both are unknown, but the Lakers will have to hope that those moments don’t become a regular thing.
That said, James had plenty of great plays in purple and gold as well and at times looked as though he was just as dominant as ever.
The Lakers saw how irreplaceable James is after he appeared in just 55 games this season, and they will have to find a way to keep him on the floor if they hope to end the playoff drought next season.
Highlight Of The 2018-19 Lakers Season
James will turn 35 years old and is coming off the worst injury of his career. He can still produce at an extremely high level but it’s fair to question whether or not the Lakers should be asking him to do all of the heavy lifting — particularly when his longevity is considered. With two years remaining on his contract plus a player option for a fourth year, it’s in the best interest of all parties to not burn James out in the regular season.
This is part of why it’s going to be critical the Lakers find a way to land a second All-Star player in free agency this summer. They have max cap space available but will need to convince their targets that they have recovered from the abrupt departure of former president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and have a plan in place to bring the team to the top of the Western Conference.
James will be needed in this endeavor as his voice may well be the most important one during pitch meetings. With Johnson gone, few will be able to sell the vision for the future as well as James can.
Despite their struggles, the Lakers will have an opportunity to turn things around this summer, but much of it will depend on James’ ability to stay healthy on the floor and close top-flight free agents on July 1.