The Los Angeles Lakers have missed the playoffs for six straight years. But even within their longest stretch of postseason futility, no year has been as much an abject failure as this one.
No matter how you twist it, the Lakers missed the playoffs without LeBron James. They signed the best player in the world and finished with a 37-45 record, only two more wins than last season. It was the first time James missed the playoffs since 2005, his second year in the league.
The Lakers’ season-long offensive rating of 107.4 was the eighth worst in the league. Their defensive efficiency started out in the top 10 of the NBA but as injuries and failures accumulated, it dropped to 108.9 (14th) to end the season.
There are plenty of excuses to make and some are even valid. But ultimately, the Lakers failed in what was supposed to be a glorious reawakening for the most storied franchise in the NBA. It was embarrassment after embarrassment for the Lakers, culminating in Magic Johnson stepping down from his position at the conclusion of the season.
The Lakers’ failures this season can be brought back to several decisions and issues that arose for the team, starting in July.
Lakers let Julius Randle, Brook Lopez walk
Last season, the Lakers had a surprisingly successful year, winning 35 games in Luke Walton’s second season on the sidelines. Much of that success was due to two frontcourt players: Julius Randle and Brook Lopez.
Randle had a career year, starting most of the season at the power forward position and being the primary backup to Lopez as a small-ball center. His continued efficiency around the rim, especially with his knack for drawing fouls was paired with a renewed focus on defense, where he helped bring the Lakers to a top-15 defensive efficiency.
Lopez, meanwhile, provided incredible spacing from the five and was at times the team’s best perimeter shooter. While not providing highlight reel blocks, he was the anchor of Walton’s solid defense, keeping players in front of him and protecting the rim.
Suddenly, neither of the team’s two stars from the previous year were on the team any longer. Lopez, after saying he would be willing to take a pay cut to stay in LA, chose to go to Milwaukee for one of the most team-friendly and valuable contracts in the league, rendering the trade of D’Angelo Russell (at least momentarily) almost pointless. (At this point, that trade has only opened up cap space that has yet to be used and given the Lakers the ability to draft Josh Hart after trading back from their original draft spot).
Randle, who also publicly stated that he wanted to be back, also left for a team-friendly contract after the Lakers reportedly did not offer him a contract, much to the coaching staff’s disappointment. To make matters worse, Randle was a restricted free agent whose offer the Lakers could have matched. But they decided to forego that ability in good faith for Randle, perhaps proving they never wanted to keep him.
What the Lakers used their newfound roster spots for made it even more questionable. They re-signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and added Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee as their key offseason acquisitions to surround LeBron and what was left of their promising young core. While each of those players had their moments and some (McGee) had largely positive effects on the team, the sum of those parts never made sense for a LeBron-led team. Unsurprisingly, the on-court product, for most of the season, followed the path that most expected.
Injuries start to hit
The first third of the Lakers’ season went fairly quietly. The team had some internal drama (Magic Johnson lashing out at Walton after a 2-5 start) and some on-court foibles (suspensions to Rondo and Brandon Ingram after an early fight with Chris Paul and the Rockets) but they entered Christmas 19-14, despite a slight slump right before their long-awaited duel with the Warriors.
That game turned out to be the turning point for the season. Despite a victory over the two-time defending champs, the Lakers lost James to a groin injury that would ultimately keep him out for 17 straight games, in which the Lakers went 6-11.
James’ injury, though the most significant, was not the only ailment that hurt the team. McGee missed seven games due to a bout with pneumonia and took months to regain the form he showed in the early parts of the season. Lonzo Ball suffered an eventual season-ending sprained ankle and bone contusion. Brandon Ingram had his season end early with a blood clot. Numerous other players suffered from numerous other ailments.
Luke Walton’s inability to quickly adjust his rotations to match the onslaught of injuries, although not completely his fault, likely spelled his doom in Los Angeles as it added to several other valid criticisms of the third-year head coach.
All in all, the Lakers missed 221 games due to injuries or personal reasons, an already astronomical number that hit more heavily for a team without much depth or continuity.
As James made his return, the Lakers were engaged in extremely public negotiations with the New Orleans Pelicans to acquire Anthony Davis. With nearly every player involved in rumors, team morale dropped to a season low. Not only were the Lakers unable to trade for Davis as the Pelicans seemingly refused to engage with them, but they looked to be the fools in attempting to do so, an embarrassment for a front office littered with such events.
The Lakers then panicked to make two smaller moves at the deadline. They acquired a sharpshooter in Reggie Bullock for rookie Svi Mykhailiuk and a second round pick. Then, they traded Ivica Zubac – at the time, their only effective center as McGee was continuing to struggle – and Michael Beasley for Mike Muscala. They were reportedly the initiators of those talks that led to the Clippers laughing about getting a productive young center for nothing.
The move opened up a roster spot for the Lakers that was not filled until Andre Ingram was called up from the South Bay Lakers with the playoffs out of reach.
The trade deadline clearly had a major effect on the morale of the team. Even with James returning, albeit at less than 100 percent health, the Lakers were unable to make up ground in the playoff race, routinely dropping games to even their bottom-tier competition. The defensive effort and intensity, the team’s calling card through Christmas with everyone healthy, dropped heavily and the team continued to struggle with creating efficient offense.
There was plenty more to discuss with a dramatic inaugural season for LeBron James with the Lakers. As the organization moves forward towards a critical offseason, keep visiting this page to follow along with our “Season in Review” series for all Lakers players, which will be linked below.