Not even LeBron James was able to save the Lakers

On Jan. 25, the Los Angeles Lakers went to Brooklyn to face the Nets and showed a joy that was unusual for them this season.

His main stars LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook were healthy, one of 21 times this season. It was Davis’ first game after a knee injury. It was James’ only appearance in New York City. He had been suspended for visiting the team in November at Madison Square Garden, his favorite place to play.

In Nets back possessions, James stole the ball and ran to the other side while the crowd murmured waiting. They burst into applause every time James sank.

After the second, James smiled. He laughed with former NFL star Michael Strahan, who was sitting on the side of the court, and trotted back to the Lakers bench still smiling.

“The more minutes we record, the more dynamic we can be,” James said after the game.

The Lakers finished eighth in the Western Conference, and the night offered hope. At the time it seemed inconceivable that a team built to be an unbeatable super team could get caught up in the play-in tournament, but the Lakers had plenty of time to move up in the standings. Many assumed they could still be dangerous in any playoff situation.

At the time, few expected what would really happen.

The Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs by the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, though James had the second-highest points average of his 19-year career this season. On Friday, James was ruled out for the last two games of the season due to a persistent ankle injury that had already kept him out of the previous three games. The Lakers are likely to finish 11th in the Western Conference, a spectacular failure for a team that was hoping to compete for a championship this season.

This season was a challenge for many teams, as the NBA tried to get back to normal with the coronavirus pandemic still happening and high-profile injuries affecting many teams. But no team in the league will end the season with such a huge gap between expectations and reality as the Lakers did.

“It’s obviously disappointing on many levels,” Westbrook said. “But there’s not much you can do right now.”

Westbrook came out with superstar fanfare in August as Lakers basketball operations president Rob Pelinka said he gave them a chance to win the franchise’s 18th championship. But his arrival did not come without questions.

How would you adapt, for example, a player who needs the ball in his hands to be productive with James, one of the best offensive facilitators in history? Was it prudent for the Lakers to grow up, signing a lot of veterans over the age of 30, when they had already been affected by health problems that often come with age?

The preseason doesn’t always predict the regular season, but the Lakers didn’t win theirs.

When they stumbled at the start of the season, the team had an easy way to explain their situation: it happens. Superstars don’t always make jelly right away.

The pandemic offered an excuse: it made continuity for any team almost impossible during the first months of the season.

Pandemic disruptions peaked during the Omicron wave in November and December, during which dozens of players entered the league’s health and safety protocols.

The NBA’s test system wasn’t perfect, and James suffered from it: he flew home from Sacramento on a quarantine plane because of a false positive coronavirus test result before a game against Kings. It was the 12th game of the Lakers’ first 23 that James had lost.

A few weeks later, a coronavirus outbreak spread throughout the team, even leaving Lakers coach Frank Vogel out for six games.

Many teams, however, were even more affected than the Lakers, including the Chicago Bulls, who had 10 players in health and safety protocols at the same time in December and had to postpone two games.

The injuries provided another explanation for the Lakers’ stumbles. James and Davis missed more than 60 combined games, a result that is not unexpected, given their recent stories. Davis said he was “disappointed because we didn’t get a chance to have a full team.”

“I’m not sure how we could have been,” he said. “With me, personally, two unfortunate injuries that kept me out for a while. That only came to be part of the season. As one of the team leaders, especially at the defensive end of the court, where the guys need me out there, it sucks for me, shit for our team, our organization. “

But this season, injuries have strangled many teams.

The Miami Heat lost Jimmy Butler for nearly a month. The Phoenix Suns lost Chris Paul for a month. The Los Angeles Clippers spent the entire season without Kawhi Leonard and lost their other star, Paul George, for three months.

While those teams found ways to adapt and stay in the playoff conversation anyway, the Lakers couldn’t.

This was partly due to a list that was thinner than it should have been due to the resources devoted to Westbrook.

To acquire Westbrook, the Lakers traded young Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma players. They declined to re-sign Alex Caruso, who became an important defensive piece for the Bulls.

The Lakers defense is among the third lowest in the NBA this season, yielding 112.8 points per 100 possessions. The only team that has conceded the most quick break points per game is Houston.

The Lakers also struggled to defend themselves within the paint, a symptom of their complicated rotation of big men.

During their championship season two years ago, the Lakers used JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard as main centers, sometimes asking Davis and James to take on the role. This season they brought back Howard, two years older and less effective. They signed DeAndre Jordan, 33, who also had a great time.

They didn’t have the assets on the trade deadline to make a move that wouldn’t bother them anymore. Westbrook’s contract will be more attractive for other teams next year when he is in his final year, assuming he opts for his player option for the 2022-23 season.

While it was clear that the Lakers squad was not working, it was even clearer that a solution would not come soon.

They were losing to the league’s bottom line teams. The best teams also hit them. Young playoff teams like the Grizzlies and Timberwolves were making fun of them, with the poor Westbrook shooting at regular target.

“This was the season we didn’t do it,” Lakers striker Carmelo Anthony said. “We had the tools. Some things were out of our control. Some things we could control, some we couldn’t. We didn’t get it. We can’t find excuses. We just didn’t get it.”

In the last nine years, the Lakers have lost seven times in the playoffs. It’s a previously unthinkable stretch for a franchise that was once used to competing for, if not always winning, championships.

This is a franchise that hopes to add superstars will save them, and sometimes they do. This season this equation did not work.

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