The Lakers struggles down the stretch have created the perception of crushing disappointment in Los Angeles. Like every other NBA follower, I wanted to quickly throw in my two cents as who is to blame/not blame. Let’s examine the issues FAQ style!
-How disappointed should the Lakers be to miss the playoffs?
Let’s start with the basics…the expectations in LA were a bit high but the reality is this team was not good. Even with LeBron James, the reasonable consensus was that the Lakers maxed out at maybe 50 wins and a likely first round exit. Outside of James, there is little talent on this roster, even compared to the stale roster James left behind in Cleveland. As noted before the season, the Lakers strategy of signing tons of guys who can’t shoot has worked out about as well as expected. They are 29th in the three-point shooting (.334%) and for all the whispers about defensive effort, the Lakers scoring is the real problem (22nd on offense and 14th on defense). So, missing the playoffs is a bad outcome but not ridiculously unexpected.
-What happened with the youngsters this year?
The three-point shooting woes, though, haven’t come from exactly the expected placed. Usual bricklayers, Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson have been decent (.352 and .379, respectively). The youngsters, however have been pretty ugly:
Kyle Kuzma, .313%
Brandon Ingram, .330%
Lonzo Ball, .329%
The common perception is that Kuzma has grown while Ingram and Ball have struggled to varying degrees. Kuzma has scored 18.9 ppg, but his three-point regression is a little scary. He’s not just missing but he’s taking six threes a game and hitting only .313%. Last year, he shot a respectable .366% on the same frequency. It seems likely that 2017-18 was the outlier, as Kuzma was not a good three-point shooter in college. In essence, he appears to be a good volume scorer who is not particularly efficient and is not a great defender.
Ingram is out with a scary blood clot and we all hope he recovers. Assuming he does, he has bumped up his raw numbers (18.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg ) and has shot much better from two (.521%). The advanced stats still don’t like him as he is -2.9 BPM and -0.4 VORP. For such an athletic player, Ingram does not pass well and gets surprisingly few blocks and steals. He’s young but the lack of peripherals does not indicate that he’ll turn into a star.
Despite being a godawful shooter (.406 FG%, .417 FG%), Ball has actually filled the stat sheet a lot better than Ingram and Kuzma. Ball sort of has the young Jason Kidd vibe with his bad shooting and his ability to other things well (9.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.4 apg, 1.5 spg). If Ball could get his shooting near somewhere near adequate, he might turn into a very valuable player. If he can’t shoot even 50% from the line, though, he looks more like Andre Roberson than Kidd.
-What was with that Anthony Davis trade attempt?
The Lakers made clear they wanted AD and were willing to trade all the youngsters. This was the right move. The Lakers did not sign LeBron James to use him to possibly develop youngsters. The window for LBJ is small and LA should convert their assets to win now.
I don’t buy that the failure to get Davis somehow sent the Lakers into a tailspin either. Most professional players deal with this stuff all the time. I’m sure Kuzma, Ball, and Ingram were not happy with the speculation but the tumult was probably overstated. The real problem was that Ball got hurt and the rest of the team just isn’t very good (even with Ball).
-Does LBJ share any blame?
Nah. James has had a close to typical LeBron season and was really good most of the time. Yes, when he speaks like he is above the fray, it does annoy some fans but, the fact is, LBJ is a transcendent player and is better than nearly every player in the NBA right now. It’s hard to blame LeBron for anything but if you really wanted to nitpick there are some signs of moderate decline. His PER of 26.1 is the lowest since 2014-15 and below his career average of 27.6. In addition, his WS/48 of .189 is the lowest since his rookie season. He still gets to the rim a lot but weirdly has had trouble shooting from 3-10 feet (.289%, a career low by nearly 100 percentage points). His three-point attempts are a career high this year too but he has not shot great (.348%). Hopefully, these changes are just hiccups and he’ll return to form next season but there are some warnings that the Lakers’ James won’t quite be the Cavs’ James.
-Does Luke Walton share any blame?
Walton will not make it to next season because of the unreal expectations of fans and management. It is not to Walton’s credit that the Lakers aren’t much better with James than they were in 2017-18 without him but they don’t have single player that is above-replacement level outside of James. Hard to blame Walton for his failure to make a bad team good. Yes, the younger players have not blossomed yet but that takes time. The only problem I saw in developing the young players was that Walton allowed Kuzma to shoot too many threes. Walton shouldn’t be guaranteed a return next season but there is no reason to make a change unless the Lakers find a tangible upgrade or LBJ just wants one (which has been known to happen).
-How much blame to management?
A lot. The notion that a 32-year old Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, and Javale McGee would make this team competitive was not realistic and this was foreseeable at the time. Many have noted that bringing Brook Lopez and Julius Randle would have added much more value. This is quite true. In management’s defense, Lopez and Randle wouldn’t have made the Lakers that much better. This was destined to be a building season unless the Lakers somehow got another star to support LBJ.
-What about next season?
Same plan. The Lakers need another star or two desperately. It’s not clear the Pelicans will ever trade AD to the Lakers, so the team will have to look for Plan B, which is trade some of the young players and sign a big free agent. If the Lakers can execute this plan, there is a lot of hope. The Warriors look like they should be vulnerable in 2019-20 and there is no obvious super team to replace them. This opportunity times perfectly with LeBron’s last really great seasons. He’ll need some help. If the Lakers can’t get him that help, this will go down as a miserable failure for management.