Where did it all go wrong? Now you ask yourself: what restaurant, effects pedal, celebrity-ish person, institution, soda, social platform update, person that you and I somehow both know, beer edition, automation technique, ideology, golf tournament, city that you never knew, or relative am I talking about?
Some people may already know that time as most of us understand it is the result of the work of an Islamic scholar; the rest of you will blame aging on him, despite Aristotle. No matter, in any case: this is about the 2021-’22 Los Angeles Lakers, eliminated from postseason play Tuesday night against (fittingly) the Phoenix Suns, and the amount of pushing a rock can possibly do against a solid-state presence before retracting against every will in its lifeless form.
The two prevailing forces surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers in 2022 are these: LeBron James, and everybody else. Well, no, actually, that’s not even true: it’s threefold, including those who enabled LeBron’s fancies to dictate the direction – while mortgaging the future – of a legitimate marquee franchise in the NBA. With this, LeBron unwittingly moves ever closer to the ghost that played in Chicago.
Following public sentiment on the latter eventually leads to people with car flags which have been dutifully stowed away for the offseason. Following the paper trail in the same direction leads to Jeanie Buss and a front office publicly complicit in James’ interests, mostly regardless of what any one person ostensibly with the ability to make decisions thought.
The 2020 title win did less for Lakers fans than any prior championship had done for a LeBron James-led team’s fan base, save for its ice to the wound of Kobe Bryant’s passing earlier in the year. Even then, though, it wasn’t going to be enough for the average Laker fan to accept him as theirs, and even if he has been something of a silent partner in his own mercenarism, it seemed that LeBron himself knew that from the jump.
An ankle injury sidelined James for the longest stretch of his career, 20 games, and effectively ended the Lakers’ seriousness as a title defender. A motley assortment of Guys who had been a part of prior to or joined the title team the previous offseason, including Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Dennis Schroeder, Kyle Kuzma, Markieff Morris, Montrezl Harrel, Wes Matthews and Marc Gasol, all exited in various means, some more dignified than others; the return included, in part, Russell Westbrook and LeBron’s 2003 draft class pal Carmelo Anthony.
You now see how that played out: Anthony Davis was never consistently healthy; LeBron’s interest fades in direct correlation to winning percentage; Russ showed up to the office and more or less delivered exactly what everybody – perhaps including Lakers brass, but – expected, and is vilified for it; Malik Monk took a veteran’s minimum contract to be here. This Los Angeles team will finish with a losing record, a fact established weeks ago.
The team itself had a stagnant offense and scattershot defense, both far below league average, perhaps at least partially born of the lineup challenges Frank Vogel faced on a seemingly nightly basis; there were many reluctant ISOs and pick-and-rolls that sometimes ended in Dwight Howard dunks but more often went nowhere.
Did you remember that Darren Collison was here, for a minute? He was exactly the person the Lakers could’ve used – a year ago, and prior. His years away from the game showed. Nothing ever stuck with this team, finishing with many more starting lineup combinations than there were players to be forced to remember in order to positively reply to one of LeBron’s #WASHEDKINGTHEYSAID posts.
James’s longtime affability and familial corniness, mostly in good humor and good faith, has cemented his reputation, along with his incredible commitment to charitable causes. His legacy as a basketball player individually is, at worst, the third-strongest in history. His alleged early entry to the front office as a middle manager, however, may be beginning to sully his diamond-encrusted reputation for decision-making.
Even if the Lakers close out their season with a win against the Nuggets Sunday night – not an ideal situation by any means – this will be the worst team featuring LeBron James in his career. It has been an atypical past couple of years for a variety of reasons, but LeBron’s roster construction habits – or input, or whatever you want to call it – since the Cavs won the title in 2016 haven’t inspired much confidence as he has aged, with the exception of going after Anthony Davis, which any team with a shot would’ve done anyway.
In Davis’s case, it might be starting to inch toward that time when we ask about whether he’s touching his previously insurmountable ceiling. We’re not there yet, but another season of fewer than 60 games – without a shortened schedule, which the league should consider if it wants stars playing most games – will not be encouraging.
As for Russ, well – you saw it, and then you heard about it for days. He probably wanted to be in on this as much as the others did, but he probably counted on more appearances from them if he was supposed to be the anchor of the second unit. He never moved when he was off the ball, the one thing he could do at his leisure to improve any team he’s on at this point.
Of course it frustrated him when he’d shoot the team out of games, and would be benched; it’s not like he’s trying to miss. It’s never once been that he’s trying to miss. There is a very real possibility he gets bought out and become a nomad or a recluse before his 34th birthday.
But Russell Westbrook started and played the most games for the 2021-’22 Los Angeles Lakers. Malik Monk was there, mostly. Melo balled typically well, carrying the ceremonial Jamal Crawford torch. None of this is a tremendous supporting cast, but for a couple of annual all-NBA talents to carry, it should’ve gotten them into last-day consideration for the play-in.
Instead, LeBron falls two games played short of even being in consideration for the scoring title, which, along with his ongoing pursuit of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record, were the only real points of interest for the latter third of this Lakers season. He inches ever closer toward Jordan in myriad ways with each game he plays; he’s already begun his pursuit of Jordan’s front office legacy.
In time, the saving grace of this period of Lakers basketball, and this team in particular, will be that they are only the third-most disappointing in recent memory – 2004 and 2012 foreshadowed this monstrosity, even if they did both make the playoffs, but we’ll see once we get over the recency bias.
Somehow, I trust this will all improbably be blown up in a few months’, if not a few weeks’, time. One or both of LeBron and AD will remain, and the rest will have been addressed. The Lakers will still be several light years over the luxury tax, but they will be competitive, or at least look the part. The Western Conference allows it, at this point; most direct Lakers stakeholders involved demand it.
But at what cost? Who do these last two years of Lakers teams become, in the autumn of LeBron James? Are they his mirror, if not Rob Pelinka’s or Frank Vogel’s? The teams between Magic and Shaq & Kobe are a bit of a blur, so there’s a template, but for the loud majority, there will have to be some change, and fast.
 Hold your pause, Hornets fans: LaMelo Ball is certifiably the best thing to happen to Charlotte basketball since LJ, and watching him has been a promise delivered…but it did take MJ long enough, even if his involvement in basketball ops isn’t a Dolan situation, and enough hirings and firings of well-to-do basketball people, to get there.