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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Nightmare in the City of Angels

A season filled with expectations leaves Lakers looking for answers

On the afternoon of July 1, 2018, Klutch Sports agency released a statement announcing that Lebron James had signed a four-year, $154 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers. Almost immediately, the NBA universe was turned upside down as the league’s biggest star had once again left his hometown of Cleveland and joined one of the biggest markets in the world.

Lakers fans across the world rejoiced. Six years removed from their last playoff appearance, fans believed the Lakers might be able to put an end to the drought by adding arguably the league’s best player.

But this young Lakers squad had 35 wins and missed the playoffs in the previous season, so many still doubted the team’s chances to make a full turnaround. Those doubts only increased when veterans Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, and Michael Beasley were signed by the team later that summer, all of which were head-scratching moves as each of these players had a reputation for either having an abrasive attitude or being highly prone to mistakes. Lakers President of Basketball Operations Earvin Magic Johnson was well aware that this team was different from many of James’s past teams — which mainly featured several additional players who could spread the floor and shoot the three — but nevertheless claimed to have found a new way to compete with the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors: toughness and playmaking.

“You’re not gonna out-Golden State Golden State,” Johnson told ESPN. “Everybody’s talking about the Lakers don’t have shooting. Oh, we have shooting. But we saw all the teams in the playoffs that had shooting; they got beat”.

When the season came around, the Lakers lost their first three games and did not reach .500 until the second week of November, when the team was 6-6. In December, the team seemed to have built up some chemistry and began to roll. By the time they played their big game against the Warriors on Christmas Day, they were 20-14 and sat in 4th atop the Western Conference.

On Christmas Day, the Lakers played arguably their best basketball game of the season. They held the Warriors to 50 points in the first half of play and led by 15. All seemed to be going well until mid-way through the third quarter when James fought for a loose ball and came up injured. He left the game and was later ruled out indefinitely with a strained groin. While the Lakers won the game 127-101, all eyes were on James’s injury. He had been healthy during his whole 16-year career, and seeing him go down with his first major injury was worrisome for the Lakers, who now had to hold on until Lebron returned.

They did the opposite of that, starting 1-5 in the first six games without James. The team could not find their rhythm and was losing crucial games which kept them further away from the tight Western Conference playoff race. In mid-January, however, the Lakers began to win games, stringing together wins in four of their next six games, including a huge win against the Oklahoma City Thunder thanks in large part to the play of Lonzo Ball — who arguably played some of the best basketball of his young career.

Things finally began to click without Lebron. That was until a severely rolled ankle against the Houston Rockets eventually ended Ball’s season and sent the Lakers into another losing stint that pushed them to a 26-25 record. But hope rebounded for L.A. as James returned in a win against the Clippers on the final day of January. Each of the last 28 games would be important if the Lakers wanted to get themselves back in the playoff race. But of course, it wouldn’t be the Lakers without drama.

New Orleans Pelicans all-star power forward Anthony Davis asked for a trade from the team in mid-January, and it was rumored that his preferred destination was the Lakers. It’s believed that the Lakers’ final offer for Davis included as many as six players and four draft picks, but the deal was not completed for unknown reasons. Even though the deal fell through,  the negotiations still had an effect the Lakers and the team’s younger players who heard their names in trade talks for the first time. Their play began to suffer and so did the team’s, and the trade-rumor turmoil eventually became the final straw in the team’s downfall.

The Lakers would go on to lose 19 of their last 28 games and were eliminated from playoff contention for the seventh straight season on March 22. Brandon Ingram missed the final 18 games of the season with a deep venous thrombosis in his arm, a career-threatening injury that he is expected to fully recover from before the upcoming season. Kyle Kuzma missed the majority of the Lakers’ final games with an ankle injury. And James was finally shut down for the season with six games remaining, shortly after it was confirmed that he would be missing the playoffs for the first time since 2005.

Once the season officially ended, Head Coach Luke Walton and the team mutually agreed to part ways, but not before Johnson surprised everyone by stepping down from his position without telling anyone in the organization.

What was largely expected to be an exciting season in L.A. turned out to be a dumpster fire of injuries, drama, and dysfunction. But the Lakers now appear to have bigger problems. As they search for a new head coach and President of Basketball Operations, summer and free agency is approaching. The Lakers have cap space for another big name player, but will anyone want to join the team? Whoever is hired for these vacancies will likely play a big role in whether or not the Lakers sign a co-star for James. This summer could end up being one of the biggest offseasons in Lakers history.

With a 34-year-old superstar in James, the time is now for the Lakers to make moves and try to win titles. He isn’t getting any younger, and this is likely his last window of playing at a high level. The pressure is on, and the margin of error is thin. Failure to win with arguably the greatest player of all time could be another stain for this historic franchise that is trying to escape the depths of mediocrity.

Written by: Omar Navarro — sports@theaggie.org



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