This week, 20 of the 30 NBA teams will either open the playoffs or participate in what is known as the play-in tournament. Somehow the Los Angeles Lakers—the ballyhooed squad with two of the best players in the league in LeBron James and Anthony Davis—are not among them.
The Lakers finished the season Sunday among the league’s 10 bottom feeders, compiling a record of 33-49, for a garbage winning percentage of .402. They are joined in watching the post-season on TV by habitual losers including the Sacramento Kings and Orlando Magic.
This is stunning. Just 18 months ago, the Lakers won the championship in the Orlando COVID-19 bubble. Before the current season tipped off in October, the ESPN Power Rankings put the team third out of 30 NBA squads. Of 16 experts the network queried, 14 expected them to reach the Western Conference Finals; 10 predicted the purple and gold would advance to the NBA Finals.
All this is not to rub Lakers’ fans faces in the shattered glass of a season, but to remember how high expectations were just six months ago. At the time, maybe the only thing that seemed more certain than LeBron et al. challenging for a championship was that Mayor Eric Garcetti would be the next U.S. ambassador to India.
Given the hopes and the star power assembled, this has to rank as one of the biggest flops not just in Lakers history, but sports history. The Lakers’ 2021-22 team proved to be the Ishtar of pro basketball. For those unfamiliar, that’s the notorious 1987 adventure comedy starring the eminently bankable Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman that came to define the phrase “box-office bomb.”
It’s both hard and easy to explain how things went so terribly wrong. Recently some have tried to spin it as a result of banged-up players, with Davis himself being more whiner than Laker, complaining that injuries derailed the season.
Sure, injuries played a role, but do you know who has big injuries? Every team in the NBA. The Phoenix Suns’ three lynchpins all missed sizable chunks of time and they boast the league’s best record. The Memphis Grizzlies’ best player, Ja Morant, has missed one-third of the 82-game season, but they sport the second-best record in the Western Conference. The Clippers are in the play-in tournament despite stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George playing zero and 31 games, respectively. That’s not even close to the 56 games James competed in and the 40 times that Davis took the floor.
This was bigger than injuries. The season was derailed by ineptitude that runs from the court to the highest reaches of the franchise.
Coach Frank Vogel was canned Monday morning, but it’s ludicrous to make him the fall guy. He’s a smart, defense-minded coach who, as mentioned above, guided the team to a title less than two years ago. Granted, he has cooked up better schemes in the past, but that was when he had better players to work with.
That’s ultimately where the problem lies: with the players assembled, as well as those let go. And the one making those decisions was General Manager Rob Pelinka.
Last July, Pelinka traded a cache of capable role players for Russell Westbrook, who several years ago was an NBA superstar. There was a logic to the move, built on the belief that Westbrook could reduce the workload on an aging LeBron. Lakers diehards thrilled at the idea of a new “Big Three.”
That view was myopic. As soon as the trade was made, numerous smart basketball observers raised their eyebrows, and pointed out that Westbrook is best when he has the ball, but if you only play with one ball—the rule in the NBA—it’s best kept in LeBron’s hands.
The fit was awful. Westbrook proved himself past his prime and morphed into a turnover machine prone to making terrible basketball decisions. By last month fans were calling him “Westbrick,” and he made things worse by publicly complaining about it. Now every analytical article touches not only on how bad a fit he is, but how difficult he will be to trade because of, gulp, his $47 million salary next season.
Pelinka’s Westbrook trade had so many awful ripples. Players he gave up, in particular Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, were the kind of floor-spacing shooters who fit best with LeBron and Davis. In trading for Westbrook, Pelinka passed up an opportunity to secure sharp-shooting Buddy Hield, who also would have been an effective complement to the two stars. Then, given Westbrook’s sky-high salary and the desire to save some money, Pelinka let fan favorite Alex Caruso walk. Caruso has gone on to have an excellent season in Chicago and played top-shelf defense. The Lakers’ defense resembles a busted screen door.
Did Pelinka pull more bad moves? Why yes, yes he did. He filled out the roster with guys who by NBA standards are geriatric and no longer translate to winning basketball.
The only real successes this year were 1) James had great statistics, 2) Malik Monk was a smart signing, though he’ll likely be too expensive to bring back next season, and 3) Rookie Austin Reaves was a nice find. And when Austin Reaves ranks on the list of your team’s highlights, your season has been a tire fire.
Blame for the season should be dumped on Pelinka’s desk, but there is plenty to spread around. Knowledgeable league analysts point out that LeBron played a big role in advocating for Westbrook—The King is not infallible. Plus, Davis, when he was healthy, didn’t play like the dominating presence he needs to be.
Team owner Jeannie Buss gets off easier than she should. After all, she hired Pelinka, and the front office she has assembled is meh at best. She needs better advisors.
Perhaps the most shocking thing is that for as disappointing as this season has been, it is actually pretty close to par for the course. Step back, and the anomaly in the past decade was not this year, but that championship season.
Winning a title is incredible, and I’m not dismissing what the Lakers accomplished, but that is the only time in the last nine seasons that the Lakers advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs. Seven times they had a losing record and didn’t even qualify for the post-season.
And while LeBron is incredible, the truth is that in three of his four season in Los Angeles, the team hasn’t gotten out of the first round of the playoffs. Things won’t get any easier next season—he’ll turn 38 in December.
There is a bright side for Los Angeles basketball. The Clippers post-season run begins Tuesday, and George is back.