By MAYUR VORA
When the Los Angeles Lakers signed LeBron James during the 2018 offseason, it was practically a given that the Lakers would make the playoffs and contend for an NBA championship. With the Cavaliers last season, LeBron carried Cleveland through the regular season and playoffs to the Finals, where they were finally swept by the Curry-led Golden States Warriors. As such, bettors in Las Vegas came out right away in favor of LeBron and the Lakeshow making the playoffs. With developing role players like Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Kyle Kuzma, and veterans like Rajon Rondo, the Lakers were poised to excel under the leadership of their new superstar.
At the start of the season, the Lakers met expectations, notching the fourth-best record in the talented Western Conference. But a groin injury LeBron suffered in December sidelined him for 18 games, a span during which the Lakers slipped in the standings and saw their playoff chances fade. A fluke injury such as this may have stunned fans who thought the Lakers were going to make a run to the Western Conference finals, but never would they have thought that the Lakers would fall out of playoff contention.
So when Lebron returned and failed to bring the Lakers out of a sub-.500 record, the basketball nation was surprised — but here’s why the Lakers’ struggles were predictable. First, there is a difference between the Lebron-led Cavaliers and the Lebron-led Lakers. Under coach Tyronn Lue in Cleveland, Lebron was able to handpick players that could support his athleticism and complement his style of play. With Kyle Korver, he had a sharpshooter. Kevin Love came off an all-star season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Kyrie Irving was an all-star with handles that rivaled some of the best in the game. On the other hand, the Lakers already had a roster in place, with budding stars like, like Ingram, Ball, and Kuzma. However, they were developing their identity as professional basketball players and did not have clear roles on the team. Combined with the one-year contract veterans, who had very little incentive to outperform their contracts because of the short longevity, the roles did not mesh with Lebron as a basketball player. Consequently, with only a season to create team chemistry, they struggled. Combined with Lebron’s injury, their playoff hopes were dashed.
The other pivotal point is simply Lebron was contending in the Western Conference, not the Eastern Conference. Teams in the West collectively have more all-stars and talent than those the East, so the Lakers had to figure out all their problems quickly, or else drown in a conference that does not allow for full-season development. Taking these changes into account, the Lakers were unable to fulfill the expectations of making the playoffs. Using this season as a learning curve, however, the Lakers have the potential to come back as a far superior team.