“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently” – Henry Ford.
The 2018-2019 NBA season didn’t go as planned for the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite landing LeBron James, the team missed the 2019 NBA playoffs. It was their sixth straight year missing out on the postseason — something that would have been considered impossible not too long ago, but these are dark times that we are living in.
After all, this is the Lakers, the NBA’s most popular franchise, whose sixteen championships featured some of the greatest to ever play the game. They are a cultural, generational, and worldwide phenomenon, but they still watched the playoffs from the couch.
As frustrating as Year 1 of King James’ reign was, the great thing about sports is the silver lining is that an opportunity for redemption is just around the corner. The 2019-2020 Lakers — armed with Anthony Davis — will have a chance to end the drought.
Still, we shouldn’t wipe the slate clean completely. This isn’t the time for a Men In Black-style memory eraser. Last season was painful and not a particularly fun one to look back on, but the suffering did provide some lessons that need to be taken to heart.
In no particular order, here are five lessons that taught the Lakers last season and how they impact the upcoming season:
Importance Of Identity: Prior to the arrival of James, the one thing the Lakers had was an identity. Sure, it wasn’t always pretty, but everyone knew exactly what they were trying to be: a fast break machine (which would help hide half-court offensive issues) built around young players like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart. The plan was to get stops, run like hell and hopefully, then-head coach Luke Walton could get one or two of the youngsters to show hints of stardom.
That team won 35 games during the 2017-18 season and were — if nothing else — fun. They finished the season third in pace and had fans buzzing about the kids.
James’ arrival in 2018 NBA free agency changed that dynamic. The team continued to try to play fast but that didn’t always mesh with James, whose Cleveland Cavaliers finished 28th, 16th, and ninth in pace in the three seasons prior to his move to Los Angeles. At this stage of his career, James is an expert at dissecting defenses in the halfcourt, particularly when surrounded by teammates who understand when, where, and how to cut in order to buy themselves the fraction of a second it takes for James to fire off a pass.
It often looked like James and the young Lakers (with perhaps the exception of Kuzma) weren’t speaking the same language on the court. Now, with new head coach Frank Vogel at the helm (whose Indiana Pacers teams regularly finished in the bottom third of the league in pace) and most of the young Lakers traded to the New Orleans Pelicans, a new identity will have to be forged — one that fits the veteran-heavy team that has been assembled.
Given the competition in the Western Conference, the Lakers will have to figure out who they are and do it quickly.
Pray To Basketball Gods For Health: The Lakers haven’t had good luck with injuries in recent years, but last season felt like an avalanche of issues. James, Ingram, Ball, Kuzma, Hart, JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo — all key players to varying degrees — missed significant time due to injury or illness.
The team’s projected starting lineup of Ball, Ingram, James, Kuzma, and McGee appeared on the floor together just 18 times or 22% of the season. Including key bench players like Hart and Rondo in the equation drops that number all the way down to 11 appearances with a healthy rotation, which is just 13% of the season. This left fans angry enough to Andy Bernard-punch the nearest wall and with the team’s luck, they probably hurt themselves doing it.
Developing chemistry with a revolving door of players is all but impossible, especially for a team full of new faces. The now-exiled Walton was far from perfect, but the argument against his ouster starts with the fact that he was constantly having to replace his irreplaceable players.
It’s no surprise that the Lakers opted to move on from head trainer Marco Nunez and bring back Judy Seto (who worked extensively with Kobe Bryant during his Lakers career) and promoted Nina Hsieh. With Davis already possessing an extensive injury history, it’s going to be important for the team’s luck to change. Perhaps prayers to the basketball gods are in order — or at the very least a shrine to NBA Iron Man and Lakers legend, A.C. Green.
Whatever it takes, the Lakers need to find a way to stay healthy this season.
3-And-D: Historically, teams led by James have focused on finding players who can do two things: play defense and knock down open shots. Everything else gets taken care of by James.
Last season, the Lakers opted to zig where others have zagged, focusing instead on putting together a team of versatile, gritty playmakers who would alleviate some of the pressure on James to run the offense.
It didn’t work. More often than not, James would still end up with the ball and attempt to create something from nothing, but without shooters to kick the ball out to, defenses collapsed into the paint. Even as Rondo and Lance Stephenson were better than expected from deep, they didn’t command the respect of opposing defense, bogging everything down.
Meanwhile, the Lakers had hoped their young players would continue to grow as shooters in order to give them the spacing they needed, but Kuzma, Hart, and Ingram all experienced severe regressions in three-point shooting while Ball only brought his marksmanship up to 33%, which is still below league-average.
On the defensive end, things started well, with the Lakers finishing November ranking fifth in the league in defensive rating and a respectable 11th in December, but then the wheels fell off. Injuries took their toll (losing Ball and replacing him with Rondo was not ideal) and by February, the Lakers had plummetted all the way to 25th.
This summer, they attempted to set things right by landing Danny Green, Jared Dudley, Quinn Cook, Avery Bradley, Troy Daniels, and DeMarcus Cousins (who was later replaced by Dwight Howard due to injury). Each of these players can either provide shooting or defense and a few can even do both.
Meanwhile, Kuzma has spent much of his summer getting his shot back on track and based on limited play with Team USA before an injury bumped him from the roster, he looks ready to contribute.
Last season, the Lakers tried to get cute with their roster and it wound up burning them. This time around, the hope is they finally have puzzle pieces that — while far from perfect — fit together a bit better.
Kyle Kuzma Is The Key: The Lakers will clearly be led by James and Davis, but if last season showed us anything, it’s that success or failure could depend on Kuzma. The sole survivor from the team’s young core following the Davis trade, they badly need him to validate that faith by making major strides this season.
Playing alongside James wasn’t an easy transition for most of the young Lakers, but Kuzma thrived by cutting to the basket while defenders were mesmerized watching the former with the ball. In fact, James racked up more assists by passing to Kuzma than any other Laker by a wide margin.
However, while James and Kuzma have real chemistry, the latter’s shooting was boom or bust. He finished the season hitting just 30% from three overall (down from 37% as a rookie), but a closer look shows just how critical his ability to knock down shots was.
In their wins, Kuzma’s shooting was right in line with his rookie production at 37% from deep. In losses, that number plummeted to just 24%. While there are plenty of factors at play in every game, the bottom line last season was that Kuzma’s shooting was a key piece in determining whether the Lakers went home with a win.
Kuzma’s shooting will be particularly if they decide to roll out a big lineup of James, Green, Kuzma, Davis, and McGee, which is arguably their most talented grouping but could have some spacing issues. The Lakers hired shooting coach (and former Laker) Mike Penberthy over the summer with the hope that he can help Kuzma and the rest of the team find success.
However, the immediate concern is Kuzma’s stress reaction in his left foot and when he will return for his third season.
LeBron James Is Still LeBron James: The demise of James has been greatly exaggerated. There’s no denying that James has slowed down a bit as Father Time has robbed him of some of his explosiveness. He is turning 35 years old in December and the human body has to break down at some point.
However, James has done a remarkable job of impacting games despite losing a bit of bounce. We aren’t seeing as many thrilling chase-down blocks or the lateral quickness that allowed him to lockdown the MVP version of Derrick Rose in the 2011 playoffs, but he’s still a force to be reckoned with.
Instead of raw athleticism, he now uses his intelligence, strength, and next-level passing ability to get the job done. Statistically, James’ per 100 possession numbers fall right in line with his previous three seasons with the Cavaliers across the board with the exception of a regression in his free throw percentage — something Lakers fans are all too aware of.
The issue with James last season wasn’t necessarily the years, but it was simply an injury issue. The depleted, mismatched Lakers roster had to rely on James to do the heavy lifting on the offensive end, which took a toll. His groin injury — the worst health issue of his career — caused the previously bullet-proof future Hall of Famer to appear in just 55 games last season.
The hope for the Lakers is that Davis’ arrival not only pushes them back into contention but also gives James a running mate who can lighten the burden placed upon him.
If Davis and James can figure out a way to lift in tandem, it won’t be out of the question for the latter to continue to be the game’s dominant force — just with perhaps less breathtaking displays of athleticism.