The Lakers Have Options to Win With LeBron James
The day after the Los Angeles Lakers’ season ended in a sweep, General Manager Rob Pelinka told reporters that the team intended to “keep our core of young guys together.”
This quote did not escape the notice of Washington Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma, whom the Lakers drafted in 2017.
“Heard that before,” Kuzma wrote on Twitter on Tuesday, adding four crying emojis to the post.
Kuzma spent his first N.B.A. season with the Lakers, playing alongside the lottery picks Lonzo Ball, Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram, as well as a number of other young players who went on to play important roles on other teams.
All of them were shipped out or let go in service of acquiring star players who the Lakers hoped could deliver immediate championships. In July 2019, after the Lakers had missed the playoffs, Kuzma survived the Anthony Davis trade, which sent Ball, Ingram and Josh Hart to the New Orleans Pelicans for Davis. The Lakers won a championship the next season. But a year later, after losing in the first round of the playoffs, the Lakers traded Kuzma to Washington as part of a deal for Russell Westbrook, hoping he could help them win their next championship.
Heading into this off-season, the Lakers are confronted with the question of whether they can or should be patient. On one hand, they were just swept in the Western Conference finals by a Denver team that showed how steady building can pay off. On the other hand, the Lakers are driven by LeBron James, 38, who wants to win now.
It is a tension that will tug at the Lakers as they decide what’s next.
“We’re incredibly proud of this group, obviously, to get to the Western Conference finals,” Pelinka said Tuesday at a season-ending news conference where he said the team’s goal was always to work toward a championship. “After the trade deadline we had one of the top records in the league. Keeping that continuity is going to be very important. We ultimately got knocked out by a team that has great continuity.”
The Lakers have had a lot of turnover in recent years, but their performance this year showed that they might have a foundation on which to build. Darvin Ham, their first-year head coach, began to find rotations that worked, which helped the Lakers go from the worst record in the N.B.A. to the conference finals.
“It’s just been a hell of a year,” Ham said. He mentioned having the support of Pelinka and the Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, then added: “To go through some of those tough times early, you know, we don’t get that support, we probably don’t make it to this point.”
Their roster has promise. After the trade deadline, the Lakers competed well, though they had little time to jell. Guard Austin Reaves was a great fit beside James and Davis, and Rui Hachimura, acquired via trade in January, provided needed offensive bursts. Dennis Schröder was critical defensively. Lonnie Walker, Jarred Vanderbilt and D’Angelo Russell also had moments of success in the postseason. Walker, for example, saved the Lakers with a 15-point fourth quarter against Golden State in Game 4 of the second round.
The Lakers were not built around youth this season, so it takes a little guessing to figure out what Pelinka means by the team’s “young core.” But Reaves is likely a key part of that.
Reaves and Hachimura are restricted free agents this year; Russell, Walker and Schröder are unrestricted free agents.
“We don’t know what team we have next year,” Davis said. “But whatever it is, whoever we have coming to training camp with the mind-set of building that chemistry, building that foundation, me and LeBron setting the tone, trying to get back here and further.”
Because of the little time they have spent together, it’s hard to say how much further they could get.
When James joined the Lakers as a free agent in 2018, some of his teammates were closer to his oldest son’s age than his. He said he knew being part of that team would require patience, and he said he was prepared to wait. But it quickly became clear he didn’t enjoy the interim.
The Lakers missed the playoffs that 2018-19 season, in part because of serious injuries to James and Ball. Midway through the season, James began hinting that he wanted the Lakers to get Davis from the Pelicans. That summer, the Lakers completed the trade.
“Yeah,” James told The Los Angeles Times when asked if he was glad he wouldn’t have to be patient anymore. “Because I was patient last year, and you see where it got me.”
He showed a bit of that same impatience on Monday after the Nuggets clinched their series, saying he doesn’t “play for anything besides winning championships at this point in my career.”
James hinted at retirement after 20 seasons.
“We’ll see what happens going forward,” James said. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve got a lot to think about, to be honest. I’ve got a lot to think about, to be honest. Just for me personally, going forward with the game of basketball, I’ve got a lot to think about.”
Later, he explicitly told ESPN and Bleacher Report that he was considering retiring.
“LeBron has given as much to the game of basketball as anyone that’s ever played,” Pelinka said. “When you do that you earn a right to decide whether you’re going to give more.”
Some saw James’s remarks as a sign that he was worn out from the past four months, when he gave a herculean effort to play through a torn tendon in his foot, or that perhaps his friend Carmelo Anthony announcing his retirement this week made him wonder if he should, too.
It was also possible he was trying to pressure the Lakers to get him a roster that could win a championship next year — perhaps by finding a way to acquire his former teammate Kyrie Irving, a controversy-plagued point guard who attended Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, despite restrictive new salary cap rules. Irving is phenomenally talented, but he has struggled to make a difference on teams since he helped James win a championship in Cleveland in 2016.
The Lakers aren’t as used to delayed gratification as most other teams. The wait between acquiring a major star to win and winning has not taken long when it has worked.
The Lakers drafted Magic Johnson with the No. 1 overall pick in 1979 and won a championship his rookie season, then four more over the next decade.
It took a few years longer for the payoff from their key signings in the summer of 1996 — Shaquille O’Neal (free agent) and Kobe Bryant (post-draft deal) — but they never missed the playoffs before winning three championships in a row.
They added Pau Gasol to Bryant’s team in February 2008, lost in the N.B.A. finals four months later, then won back-to-back championships.
And Davis, like Johnson, helped the Lakers win a championship right away. It was only James’s second year in Los Angeles.
Conversely, the Nuggets have spent years constructing this team.
They waited while their point guard Jamal Murray tackled the long recovery that comes with an anterior cruciate ligament tear. Murray’s injury came in April 2021, after the Nuggets had built a roster that seemed capable of winning a championship. His recovery has delayed that timeline.
They could afford to wait since their top star, Nikola Jokic, is still in his 20s.
The reward for their patience is a team that has looked serene in challenging moments, whose players mesh with each other completely. This season’s newcomers understood the culture right away.
But James is 10 years older than Jokic, and that provides a unique challenge. No star has ever played as well as he has at his age. He may not be at his own peak, but he is still one of the best players in the game. The night Denver ended his season, he had 40 points — more than anyone on either team.
James doesn’t want to wait, but quick fixes don’t always work; see the trade for Westbrook that sent Kuzma to Washington. The Lakers missed the playoffs in Westbrook’s first season, then traded him away this season for young players who helped but couldn’t win it all.
Based on what the Lakers established this year, they would not be starting from scratch if they chose to stay on their current path. But it could take more time than James has left.