The Losing Lakers: How One of the League's Most Storied Franchises Continues to Take L's
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
Recent years have not been kind to LA's beloved Lakers, but the bizarre fallout of the past week has only made matters worse.
The Los Angeles Lakers are in a bad place.
When LeBron James signed his 4-year $154 million deal on July 9th, 2018, Lakers fans could not have predicted that one season into their star's new contract, the team would have missed the playoffs, parted ways with their coach, and watched their President of Basketball Operations step down in an impromptu press conference all in the same week. The fact that people have legitimately considered the idea of trading LeBron says just about all you need to know about the current state of the Lakers. Let's take a look at how the Lakers' 2018-19 season got to this point.
The Meme Team
After a 2017-18 season in which the team showed some signs of promise with a young core of Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, and Julius Randle, the Lakers looked like they might have something to build on moving forward. Both Paul George and LeBron were rumored to have strong interest in going to LA, with other notable free agents also listed as potential targets. Things were looking up for the Lakers.
After the news broke that George had decided to re-sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder for 4-years, $137 million, Laker nation panicked, fearing they had lost their shot with LeBron and, consequently, their chance to skip another year of the "rebuilding" phase. On the same day, the Lakers also announced they would not resign Julius Randle and Brooks Lopez (both of whom would go on to have great 2018-19 seasons), and people began to question the plans of the Lakers' leadership.
Yet, a little over a week later, their panic turned to jubilation when LeBron announced his "decision 3.0" to sign with LA despite the team's inability to ink another star. Fans fell to their knees on the streets, paraded through LA, and began purchasing LeBron jerseys before they went on sale. Lakers fans had forgotten they had ever questioned the organization; things were looking back up again for the team.
“Wake me when a LeBron James team doesn't win 50 games.” - Nick Wright
Then came the waiting... and waiting... and waiting... when was this second superstar coming to LA? By the time they had reached opening day on October 18th, the Lakers still had not signed LeBron's new sidekick, but they were able to assemble a team comprised of Rajon Rondo, Javale McGee, Lance Stephenson, and Michael Beasley, a group who would quickly earn the nickname "The Meme Team" for their history of wild behavior.
Red flags began to pop up around the team, yet many still believed they were a lock for a playoff spot. After all, LeBron had been to the playoffs for 13 straight seasons with several teams less talented than the Lakers. Nick Wright of FS1's First Things First even said "wake me when a LeBron James team doesn't win 50 games." (Someone needs to wake Nick Wright.)
Then the season started. Opening 0-3 to start the year was likely not how they drew it up, but the team responded by going 17-7 in their next 24 games, propelling them into 4th in the West for a brief period. Heading into their Christmas game against the Warriors, a game that many considered to be a good test for The Meme Team, the Lakers were 19-14. After blowing out the Warriors in the first half, the Lakers led 71-57 with just under 8 minutes left in the third quarter when basketball fans were confronted with a sight they had never seen before: a LeBron James injury.
"Fake News." - Jeanie Buss in response to questions about the Lakers' trade offer for Anthony Davis
Initially, the injury appeared innocuous, a mild strain at worse. But after cameras caught LeBron mouthing the words "I felt it pop," the Lakers' season seemed to start slipping away. The Lakers' star would go on to miss five weeks, the longest period he had missed at any point in his career.
Then came the Anthony Davis saga. After a shocking report on January 29th by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski that Anthony Davis had requested a trade from the Pelicans, the NBA world lost its mind. Rich Paul, Davis' agent and LeBron's childhood friend, released a statement saying "Anthony wants to be traded to a team that allows him a chance to win consistently and compete for a championship. " The Lakers immediately became frontrunners in the trade talks, supposedly offering their young core of Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Ivica Zubac, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and two first-round draft picks in return for Davis and Solomon Hill.
"Shortly after the trade deadline, Clippers consultant Jerry West—who spent more than 40 years with the Lakers as a player, coach and executive—got together for dinner with old friends who also had former Laker ties, sources said. He couldn't believe how Zubac fell into his lap. - Dave McMenamin on Zubac trade
Only they didn't. Or they did? No one seems to know how the trade offers actually went down, as the Pelicans camp leaked that they never had any intention of trading Davis, to which Lakers' owner Jeanie Buss replied that the reports of any Lakers offers were "Fake News." Regardless of what actually happened, what remained of the Lakers chemistry was ruined from that point forward. The young core had been dangled as bait in a trade saga organized by LeBron's close friend, so it was only a matter of time before people began drawing lines between LeBron and the trade.
Even after it became clear that the team's "alleged" trade attempt for Davis was unlikely to go down, the Lakers still found a way to make the headlines with a deal. In a move that left everyone scratching their heads, the Lakers traded their promising young rim-protector Ivica Zubac and the misfit Michael Beasley to the Clippers for Mike Muscala. The trade was so strange that Jerry West, now a consultant with the Clippers, reportedly "shared a hearty laugh at the Lakers' expense" over dinner with old friends. It's never a good sign when a team laughs as they accept your trade offer, especially when that team shares your stadium with you.
The second-half of the Lakers' season was as disappointing and confusing as the first. LeBron told the media he had activated "playoff mode," only to go 2-5 in the next 7 games. Clip after clip after clip of his lack of defensive effort left people questioning what this playoff mode really was. After their playoff hopes were equally as unlikely as their chances at the first overall pick, the Lakers decided to play LeBron in limited minutes before eventually shutting him down for the remaining 6 games of the season.
"I was happier when I wasn't president."- Magic Johnson
To be completely fair to the Lakers, they were terribly unfortunate with the number of injuries they accumulated over the season. Between Lonzo's ankle, LeBron's hip, and Ingram's Deep Venous Thrombosis (DVT), which is potentially career threatening, the Lakers went through a lot this season that was out of their control. In this light, their failure this season really is not all that surprising. However, when paired with the numerous narratives surrounding the team and the seemingly continuous odd decisions (to put it mildly) that were made by the organization, it's pretty fair to say that the Lakers' season really was a failure. For the 6th straight year, the Los Angeles Lakers will not be in the playoffs, their longest ever playoff drought.
The Vanishing Act: Magic's Emergency Press Conference
Just when things looked like they couldn't get any weirder for the Lakers, Magic Johnson, the team’s President of Basketball Operations, had to steal his share of the headlines by calling an impromptu press conference prior to the team's final game of the season. Here’s a quick summary of how this night went down: Essentially, Magic showed up to the game, told reporters that he was stepping down from his position but had not yet told Jeanie Buss because he respected her too much, cited the desire to Tweet as one of his motivating factors to step down, and then laughed when asked what the Lakers’ plans were moving forward. If you’re confused, join the club.
Let’s give this whole mess a quick breakdown. The fact that Magic chose to step down as the President of Basketball Operations is not really the issue in this situation. The team has struggled greatly in recent seasons (see above for plenty of evidence of this), and they could do with some change. The manner in which he chose to handle his resignation, however, is what is problematic. Instead of making a general statement about how this decision was best for both parties, Magic said “I was happier when I wasn’t president.” I’m all for people searching for their happiness; why do something if you’re not happy doing it? But proclaiming your lack of happiness at a press conference in which you are making a surprise announcement to step down? I can’t say that’s a move I’ll be suggesting to anyone in the near future.
And what about the fact that he didn’t tell his boss that he was quitting? I’m not sure there are too many situations that exist for which this reaction would be the appropriate response, but I can say with some certainty that stepping down from a job when your boss is “like a sister” to you is not one of them. Out of respect for your boss and coworkers, you can’t have them finding out that you’re quitting through TV or social media, especially when you sat in a 3 hour meeting to discuss the future of the team the day before. Really weird move.
Everything I’ve heard about Magic Johnson as a person is overwhelmingly positive; apparently he is a really nice guy with a big heart. With that said, I would not want Magic Johnson to have any decision making power in a business I care about ever again. He’s a great investor, a great deal closer, and he brings wonderful star power to any organization. That doesn’t mean he can run an NBA franchise. I wish Magic the best in his future endeavors, but I’d like to think this is the last time we will see him working in the front office of an NBA team.
With question marks surrounding every facet of this team imaginable, where do the Lakers go from here? After Luke Walton and the team mutually split ways last week, the Lake Show is now without a coach and a President of Basketball Operations. As an organization that is built on money and history, finding top tier replacements should not be too difficult. Yet, for the Lakers (and the Knicks, sheesh), getting the right people to come to the organization has been a struggle recently, and with the way their search has gone thus far, I’m not too confident things are going to turn around any time soon. Reports have already surfaced that teams around the league are “shocked and relieved” that the Lakers have not spent more time pursuing a counterpart to Rob Pelinka, choosing instead to search for a head coach. You would think that a team would want to build an airtight front office before hiring a head coach to ensure that everyone at the top is on the same page, but apparently the Lakers don’t feel the same way.
So how should the Lakers proceed? Write a blank check to the Sam Presti’s and the Daryl Morey’s of the world and let them fill in the amount. Money is not an issue for the Los Angeles Lakers, but winning basketball games is. The Lakers need a clear organizational structure from the top-down, and an executive with a history of developing franchises can help provide that clarity. Relying on LA’s star power as a city and as a franchise isn’t going to cut it anymore. It’s time for the Lakers organization develop a real plan.