The Los Angeles Lakers have no clear short or long-term path to success and could be in trouble for the next decade. [Image: Flickr.com / Erik Drost]
The Los Angeles Lakers are in trouble
The Los Angeles Lakers, champions of the NBA just three years ago, are caught between the rock of the present and the hard place of the future.
injuries, miscalculated trades, aging stars, poor coaching decisions
A multitude of issues have befuddled the Lakers ever since their run to the NBA finals in the bubble: injuries, miscalculated trades, aging stars, poor coaching decisions, the lot. They are just 12th in the Western Conference despite having the fifth-highest salary cap hit and have no obvious plan forward.
With so many problems facing the Lakers, could basketball’s glamor franchise be doomed to irrelevance for the next decade? The front office needs to prepare for that possibility.
The Lakers were one of the worst teams in the league from the tail end of Kobe Bryant’s career until LeBron James showed up in 2018. They weren’t fixed overnight, but a 2019 trade for Anthony Davis and retooling of the roster allowed them to go on a run and secure their first championship since 2010.
In hindsight, the 2021 season is where the train left the tracks. LeBron suffered an ankle injury that has led to many lower leg issues since, Davis regressed and was also injured, and the team’s early playoff flame-out led to a flurry of trades and new signings.
Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Montrezl Harrell were casualties in a trade that saw the Lakers land Russell Westbrook from the Washington Wizards. Key members of the title-winning team such as Alex Caruso, Javale McGee, Danny Green, and others were also allowed to walk in free-agency without any obvious replacements.
the oldest roster in NBA history
L.A. then assembled the oldest roster in NBA history, which proved to be a mistake. The Westbrook trade also came back to haunt the franchise, as they went just 56-74 with him on the roster.
The purple and gold finally made some headway at the recent trade deadline with the acquisitions of D’Angelo Russell, a former second-overall pick by the Lakers in the 2015 draft, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley, and Mo Bamba. Those moves may have come too late in the season, however, as L.A. was -190 to miss the playoffs as of February 24, according to DraftKings sportsbook.
Now or never
As dire as the immediate future looks for the Lakers, the long-term outlook is even worse. LeBron is injured once again with a serious (undiagnosed) foot injury that will leave him out for at least a few weeks. But beyond that, he has been listed on the injury report 35 times this season with problems in his ankle, foot, hamstring, and adductor.
LeBron, 38, was once an iron man, but is finally showing wear and tear. He’s played in just 69.2% of possible regular-season games since arriving in the Los Angeles, yet is still burdened by playing the 12th-most minutes per game in the league.
Davis has also failed to take the leap he was supposed to a few years ago. He’s now a very old and battered 29 years old, and his future with the team could be in jeopardy.
The Lakers have traditionally targeted high-profile stars in free agency rather than cultivate their own stars, with the obvious exceptions of Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant. It would be a massive blow for them to lose Davis and LeBron in the next couple of seasons.
does not have a guaranteed first-round pick until 2026
In case L.A. does opt to go down the draft route, it does not have a guaranteed first-round pick until 2026. The New Orleans Pelicans own their 2023 selection and can take either their 2024 or 2025 pick, depending on their preference. The Lakers don’t definitively own their first-round pick until 2026.
The Lakers only need to close a one-game gap to reach the play-in tournament, based on the standings as of March 1. They will be a serious threat to any team if they get in, but their inability to stay healthy makes them unlikely to win four straight series. And if they don’t find any level of success, fans may look back on the 2020 season as their only positive year this decade.