ALL BALL: LeBron’s lost weekend
by Paul Teetor
It was a lost weekend for LeBron and the Lakers.
And it’s going to get worse.
First they lost Anthony Davis for at least the next month and quite possibly longer.
Then they lost four out of five games.
In the process they lost their standing as the league’s best team and they lost the offensive support for LeBron James that has been so vital to their success over the last season and a half.
Even more ominous, the Lakers got a sneak preview of their possible future when they played the Brooklyn Nets Thursday night.
It was a horror show.
The Nets, coached with a perfect light touch by Manhattan Beach’s own Steve Nash, handily beat the Lakers 109-98. The game was not even that close as Brooklyn led from start to finish, usually by more than 20 points.
The game received a big buildup from the national sports media as a possible preview of a Finals match next June, even though Kevin Durant was out with a minor injury for Brooklyn and Davis was out with a major leg/calf injury for the Lakers.
That still left a star-studded cast: flashy Kyrie Irving and relentless scorer James Harden for the Nets vs. The Greatest of All Time LeBron James and… well, that’s the problem for the Lakers right now. There really is no one of note beyond LeBron. When Kyle Kuzma is your second-best player, you’re in serious trouble.
The lost weekend got worse Saturday night when the Miami Heat beat the Lakers in a rematch of last season’s NBA Finals. So within 48 hours the Lakers re-ran the immediate past and the possible immediate future in terms of Finals opponents.
Neither looked very promising.
The Nets are a big-time threat to the Lakers title defense. Durant is one of the top three players in the NBA along with LeBron and Kawhi Leonard. Harden is a top 10 player and possibly even a top five guy, depending on who’s doing the ranking. Kyrie is merely a top 15 player.
After beating the Clippers Sunday night, the Nets are now 12-1 against teams with winning records – an incredible record that projects them as the eventual NBA champs come June. Of course, it’s a long haul until then, but at nearly the halfway mark of the pandemic shortened regular season – cut down from the normal 82 games to 72 – the Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers, led by MVP candidate Joel Embid, project to meet in the Eastern Finals. The red-hot Utah Jazz and the Clippers project to meet in the Western Finals.
The Lakers? They won’t even make the playoffs unless AD comes back at 100 percent or very close to it.
This bad patch for the Lakers started off last week when AD limped off the court against the Jazz and couldn’t put any pressure on his right foot. At first it was feared he had ruptured his Achilles tendon, the most feared injury in sports, one that typically requires more than a year’s rehab and recovery.
But after two days of evaluation the Lakers said he had a partial tear in his calf muscle, located just above the Achilles tendon, and chronic soreness in the tendon but no rupture.
They said he would have to miss at least a month to let it heal. Some medical experts said the continuing danger of a full Achilles rupture would require that the Lakers be extremely cautious and not play him again until a few games before the playoffs start in late April.
However it plays out, the bad news has forced the Lakers front office – and their fans, who are still starved for a real championship season/celebration where they can see the games in person and march in the streets afterward – to confront the harsh reality of how the Lakers got here and where they are going.
Without AD, the Lakers are exactly what they were in LeBron’s first year here, when they didn’t even make the playoffs: the King and a bunch of role players who don’t move the needle much in either direction.
Coach Frank Vogel, naturally, disagrees.
“I think we’ve still got plenty of firepower,” he said after the loss to the Heat. “Plenty of firepower.”
But if you look at the Lakers situation a little deeper, you’ll see where the scary future might be heading.
The role players in LeBron’s first year here were the Lakers kids just finding their way in the NBA: blossoming scorer Brandon Ingram, great-passing-but-terrible-shooting point guard Lonzo Ball, and do-it-all glue guy guard/forward Josh Hart, the kind of unsung but invaluable player every winning team needs.
Yes, they missed the playoffs, but all of them were showing signs of becoming legit NBA players and maybe even stars. But that wasn’t good enough for LeBron. He wanted a star side-kick RIGHT NOW and his agent Rich Paul had one waiting in the wings in AD.
Even better, AD, who still had one year left on his contract, had demanded a trade out of New Orleans and had a wish list with only one team on it: the Lakers.
Using all the leverage he had accumulated in agreeing to sign with the Lakers in the summer of 2018,
LeBron convinced/pressured/demanded/suggested – take your pick — that the Lakers trade for AD before another season of his late prime was wasted while waiting for the kids to blossom into championship-worthy NBA players.
Oh, and as for AD’s well documented long injury history, forget about that. LeBron would teach him his secrets of injury-free survival in the NBA.
But the reality is that ever since he put on the purple and gold uniform, AD has suffered a long string of injuries, most of them minor ones that he gutted his way through in a noble attempt to show that he is not in fact brittle and injury-prone.
But this injury is different and calls into question the whole premise of the trade the Lakers made to get him in the summer of 2019. The basic deal was Ingram, Ball and Hart, plus three first-round draft picks that come due later in this decade, in exchange for Davis. The thinking at the time was that they would be low-value picks because the Lakers would still be winning championships, and the picks would thus be late in the first round.
But what if the master plan of LeBron and AD dominating the league for years to come collapses and the Lakers start losing? Then those draft picks become very valuable to the Pelicans and at the same time prevent LA from re-building.
To make the trade appear even worse in hindsight, look at what has happened to those ex-Lakers kids. Ingram, still just 23, has become an All-Star in New Orleans whose stats alone – 25 points and 10 rebounds per game – are roughly equal to AD’s. Ball, after struggling again with his shot during his first year as a Pelican, has finally found his groove this year at age 23 and is now shooting three-pointers at a league average of 36 percent. He always was a great ball-handler, passer and rebounder at 6-foot-6, and is now becoming the third wheel in a terrific trio led by Ingram and the one-of-a-kind monster dunker Zion Williamson.
Hart? At 25, he’s a more polished version of what he was here: a stout defender, a dive-on-the-floor leader who sets the physical tone for his team, and a reliable 3-point bomber who shoots nearly 40 percent.
And then there’s the other 3 kids the Lakers either gave away, let walk as free agents or traded to create enough salary cap space to sign LeBron and AD. Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell are all far advanced from where they were in their first couple years in LA.
Clarkson is averaging 18 ppg for the Jazz and is a lock to be voted the NBA’s sixth man of the year. Randle is averaging 23 points and 11 boards a game as the leader of the resurgent New York Knicks. Russell is averaging 20 ppg and 10 assists for Minnesota.
Now imagine that Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka had been able to convince LeBron to wait just one more season until they could sign AD as an unrestricted free agent while they watched the kids develop and decided which ones to keep.
They could now have a starting five of LeBron, AD, Ingram, Clarkson and Randle, with plenty of depth behind them. That’s a team that could beat the Nets. The team they have now is not.
More important, it would have given them quality young players to surround Davis, who signed a 5-year, $190 million extension a couple of months ago, when he becomes the centerpiece of the post-LeBron team.
It says here that LeBron is the greatest player of all time and will become the NBA’s all-time career scoring leader some time in the 2022-23 season. He is indisputably the most unselfish great player the hoops world has ever seen. He has always made his teammates better, a rare talent indeed.
But his talents as a shadow general manager who likes to dictate personnel moves – he got Coach David Blatt fired in Cleveland, got Coach Luke Walton fired by the Lakers, and tried to get Coach Eric Spoelstra fired in Miami before Pat Riley put his big-foot down and said no way – are not nearly as impressive.
As a GM, he is intensely focused on what is good for LeBron and his team at the moment and forget about the team’s long-range future because he probably won’t be there.
When he left Cleveland the first time in 2010, the Cavaliers immediately sank to the bottom of the standings and did not revive until he came back four years later and teamed up with Kyrie to bring the Cavs their one and only NBA title in 2016.
When LeBron left Miami in 2014, the same thing happened: the Heat went from terrific to terrible in one day. And don’t forget that his BFF Dwayne Wade was stunned by his departure and never fully recovered.
It took master team builder Pat Riley six years to get the Heat back to the NBA Finals, and it was only because he convinced Jimmy Butler to come to Miami and then added two great late-lottery draft picks: center Bam Adebayo and shooting guard Tyler Herro.
When LeBron left Cleveland the second time, the Cavaliers collapsed again, with one big difference – this time LeBron is never coming back to lead them to another title. He’s already been there and done that. Three years later they are still terrible.
Now, thanks to the 2-year, $85 million extension he signed a couple of months ago, LeBron is contractually committed to the Lakers until the end of the 2022-23 season.
After that, he’s free to leave for a more promising team. God knows he’s done it three times before, so it’s certainly possible.
Right now, without AD, the Lakers have zero chance of beating the Nets. With AD they at least have a fighting chance, but three superstars usually trumps two superstars.
In addition, Nets Coach Nash has done a marvelous job of dealing with two issues the Lakers – and every other contender in the league – were hoping would hold the Nets back after the blockbuster Harden trade was announced two months ago.
First was the hope that three ball hogs would not be able to play together and would soon squabble over who should be taking the last shot in clutch situations. But Nash very smartly and publicly said he was not going to dictate late-game shot selection and would leave it up to them to work it out among themselves. So far, the three super-stars are playing like guys out to prove that their selfish reputations are a bad rap.
Kyrie, the biggest knucklehead and locker room cancer of the three, even went so far as to say publicly that Harden is the point guard on the team. Kyrie said he is happy to play shooting guard and wait for Harden to pass him the ball when Durant – the undisputed best shooter in the league – is not open.
So far team harmony prevails on the offensive end of the court, and that is nothing but trouble for the Lakers and the rest of the league.
The other great hope was that the Nets would be so bad defensively that they couldn’t prevail in the playoffs, where the pace of the game typically slows down and great defense is required to win a championship.
At first it looked like that might happen, as the Nets were on pace to give up the highest points against average in league history. But ever since Nash called them out after a bad loss in which they gave up five points to the woe-begone Washington Wizards in the last six seconds to lose a game they had in hand, their offensive harmony has spilled over to the defensive end. Again, the three studs look intent on proving that their no-defense rep is a bad rap.
The Lakers lost weekend is suddenly in danger of turning into a lost season.
LeBron, League Compromise (Sort of)
LeBron lost more than his trusted wingman Anthony Davis this past week. He also lost his argument with the NBA and Commissioner Adam Silver over the wisdom of holding an All-Star game this season.
Two weeks ago, when the league office tentatively announced a traditional All-Star weekend in Atlanta with the game itself scheduled for Sunday, March 7, LeBron quickly spoke up against the idea.
“It’s a slap in the face,” he said. “I have zero energy and excitement about an All-Star game this year. I don’t even understand why we’re having an All-Star game.”
The problem: a short off-season and a compressed season – it didn’t start until Dec. 22 this year, more than two months later than usual – have left the players exhausted and stressed out by the Covid-19 health and safety protocols.
Then of course there is the very real danger of an All-Star weekend – long known as a 72-hour non-stop party with every rapper, sports agent, groupie and wanna-be celeb showing up to get down with the stars – turning into a super-spreader event with the potential to infect a majority of the league’s best players.
Why take such a huge risk?
Other big-name players soon joined the chorus to back up LeBron. Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and Jayson Tatum all made similar comments. All that support prompted more complaints of bad faith negotiating from LeBron.
“Coming into this season we were told that we were not having an All-Star game, so we’d have a nice little break,” he said. “Five days from the fifth through the tenth, an opportunity for me to kind of recalibrate for the second half of the season. My teammates as well. Some of the guys in the league. And then they throw an All-Star game on us like this and just breaks that all the way up. So, pretty much kind of a slap in the face. And we’re also still dealing with a pandemic. We’re still dealing with everything that’s been going on, and we’re going to bring the whole league into one city that’s open? Obviously, the pandemic has absolutely nothing to do with it at this point when it comes to that weekend.”
But he stopped just short of issuing an ultimatum, admitting that if the league went ahead with it “I’ll be there physically but not mentally.”
That was good enough for Silver and the other NBA officials who made the final decision to go ahead with the game and, in the process, make sure they collect all that TV money it generates every year.
But they made one concession to LeBron and the other star players: instead of the weekend starting with the skills challenge on Friday night and the dunk contest and three-point shoot-out Saturday night followed by the All-Star game itself Sunday afternoon, all those events will be held Sunday.
When LeBron speaks, the league listens – kind of.
Follow: @paulteetor ER
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