On Thursday, Mar. 8, the Los Angeles Lakers were functionally eliminated from postseason contention.
With the decision to sit LeBron James in back-to-backs and put a minutes restriction on the future Hall of Famer, the franchise officially waved the white flag on their already fractionally-small playoff hopes. This season was supposed to be different, obviously, given James in tow — at the very least, most assumed, the Lakers’ five-year postseason drought would end.
Even if they didn’t go further than the first round, James had made the playoffs in 13-straight seasons — and reached the NBA Finals in the last eight — so that alone seemed nearly guaranteed.
Instead, the Lakers struggled to stay healthy. To date, Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo have missed a combined 50 games, and James himself, basketball’s modern-day ironman, sat out in 18 contests. Sandwiched between those troubles and a slew of other minor, nagging injuries, the Lakers also lacked the consistency needed to compete in the tougher Western Conference. And, above all, perhaps, the roster just didn’t seem to piece together the way the front office had clearly envisioned during free agency.
Heading into the All-Star break, Los Angeles found themselves in 10th place and three measly games out of the final seed. Since then, the Lakers have flat-out cratered, losing six of their last eight games and crashing out of contention entirely.
Of course, it’s not that difficult to pinpoint where things went sideways for Los Angeles. Once the Lakers’ strange and public negotiations with the New Orleans Pelicans resulted in not Anthony Davis but Mike Muscala and Reggie Bullock, their already-shaky foundation plummeted right through the very thin ice. All of a sudden, missing the postseason might be the Lakers’ least important problem. Presumably, their front office — led by Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka — will have no choice but to sheepishly return to the well come summertime, trying once again to reignite the embers of their failed blockbuster with New Orleans.
And if that doesn’t work — or if those long-time rivals in Boston swoop in with a Jayson Tatum-centered package — the Lakers will practically be back to square one. Either way, Los Angeles’ less-than-subtle implosion is another reminder that there are no shortcuts to a championship — just ask the Brooklyn Nets how they feel about that one.
The tale of Brooklyn’s near-half decade demise is well-documented by now, spending years locked away in a lonely, pick-less cellar after dealing them all to the Celtics in 2013. At the time, the Nets’ relatively-green owner — Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov — had even promised an NBA championship within five years of his initial purchase of the franchise. As if trading for the ailing bodies of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett — both of whom had one foot out of the door already — wasn’t bad enough, the Nets had to watch as Boston scooped up Jaylen Brown and Tatum before sending that final unprotected first-rounder in a deal that landed them Kyrie Irving. Long story short, Prokhorov was forced to walk back his infamous ‘championship or marriage’ vow and later that year, then-general manager Billy King was unceremoniously reassigned within the organization.
Lesson learned, in fact, as the Nets hired a head coach with a focus on development and the future, Kenny Atkinson, and enticed Sean Marks, a highly-regarded Gregg Popovich disciple, to do the roster building. Three years later and Brooklyn seems ready, at long last, to jump back into the playoff picture after finishing with a 78-177 record between 2015-18. Through calculated drafting risks, salary dumps and short-term contracts, Marks has collected the likes of Caris LeVert, Jarrett Allen and Spencer Dinwiddie to, more or less, weather the storm. They even landed D’Angelo Russell from the Lakers in return for taking on Timofey Mozgov’s albatross-tier deal — given by the since-fired Mitch Kupchak — back in 2016.
Brooklyn’s patient attempts at growth have proved mighty fruitful, snagging a useful bunch of players on team-friendly deals — most often picked off the nearly-forgotten scrap heap.
Even today, the fledgling Nets are within reasonable reach of max contract cap space this offseason — two in the unlikely case that they let Russell walk — and chatter has already begun about the franchise’s odds in free agency.
Naturally, Brooklyn is not Los Angeles — that goes without saying. The Nets have just two championships (ABA) under their belt, while the Lakers boast 16. Historical records aside, there’s also LeBron James, recruiter extraordinaire, onboard and signed through at least 2020-21. Still, Los Angeles should be careful about chasing ghosts in their attempt to match the Golden State model for a super team. Sure, if the Lakers do eventually secure Davis, who, by all accounts, has not hidden his desire to join forces with James in Los Angeles, then this could all go away in a Thanos-like snap.
But for as many scenarios as this ultimately works out for Johnson’s purple and gold, there are just as many where it does not. There are outcomes where Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving join forces in New York or in which Kawhi Leonard signs up with their in-arena rivals, the Clippers, instead. Or, maybe, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge will finally pony up what the Pelicans truly want in Tatum, one-year rental or not, and the Lakers must push pause on their grand plans for an entire extra year.
Should Davis not unite with James until free agency in 2020, the latter will be halfway to 36 years-old.
In the meantime, the Lakers will have to mend their relationships with at least three talented, frustrated youngsters that were just not-so-privately shopped around. Veterans like Tyson Chandler and Rajon Rondo will always sign up for one-year romps with James, that much has been clear since his early Miami HEAT days. But the Lakers, potentially still forgetful of the last time they pushed all-in without much foresight — Luol Deng and $72 million say hello — will undoubtedly pursue Davis again come July.
There are striking similarities between Johnson and Prokhorov’s brash attempts to build a championship-worthy team overnight — certainly enough by now that the Lakers’ brass should see the cautionary tale unfolding in front of their eyes. Quickly, the Nets’ fame-hungry owner was forced to toil, both silently and hopelessly, in basketball purgatory for four seasons because of his error. Despite his best efforts, Prokhorov found out the hard that there are no shortcuts to winning in the modern NBA.
At this point, even with LeBron James calling the shots, the Lakers would be wise to take note before it’s too late.