The time for the Los Angeles Lakers is now.
In my first full season on the Lakers beat, I heard nothing but excuses from the players in 2019, mainly just one excuse: “If everyone didn’t get hurt, we would have been a top-three team in the Western Conference.”
Of course, LeBron James is the ringleader of the injury excuse circus and the message was passed on down the line to his teammates.
No one is questioning that injuries to LeBron, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Rajon Rondo, and other key players contributed to the team falling off the rails, but it certainly was not the only reason why they finished 37-45 and missed the playoffs.
The Lakers were 20-14 the day after Christmas and were tied for fourth place in the Western Conference. This moment in history is the key catalyst to theory that the Lakers would have finished in the same position or higher in the standings had the injuries not occurred.
However, there’s many flaws to this line of thinking. First and foremost is the schedule. After starting the season 4-6, the Lakers had one of the easiest schedules in the NBA over their next 20 games. In the second half of the season, they had one of the more difficult schedules in the NBA, if not the most difficult.
The other problem is the butterfly effect. Had the injuries not occurred, what would the ripple effect be on other teams in the NBA. For example, after that Christmas Day victory over the Warriors, the Houston Rockets were in eighth place in the west. They were by far the best team in the NBA during the second half of the season, and finished tied for third. Even if LeBron doesn’t get hurt, I think the Rockets still would have been there.
The same can be said for the Utah Jazz who were 17-18 and in 11th place in the Western Conference on Christmas Day. The finished the season in fifth place and with a record of 50-32. Many of those second half victories came against the shorthanded Lakers.
Injuries are part of the game, and a player’s injury history is supposed to be taken into consideration by the front office when constructing a roster. Rondo has had a long and extensive injury history. Lonzo Ball has been plagued with ankle injuries since early in his rookie season. As much as they want to gripe and complain and cry “unfair,” the Lakers were not the only team that had to deal with multiple injuries this season. The Warriors, Rockets, Trail Blazers, Jazz and Thunder, were all playoff teams that had their fair share of injuries as well.
It’s safe to say that the Lakers would have likely been a playoff team had LeBron and others not gotten injured. There is truth and validity to that statement. But, it’s unrealistic in my opinion to think they would have finished as a top three seed in the Western Conference solely because they were there on Christmas Day.
The reason I bring this up, is not to drudge up bad memories for Lakers fans, but because of the fear and consternation I have with letting this theory seep into the ether as the sole excuse for the Lakers lackluster season.
If LeBron and Lakers’ general manager Rob Pelinka buy stock in this injury excuse, then they may be coerced into “running it back,” next season, ignoring the overwhelming flaws in the roster construction for the 2018-2019 campaign.
Make no mistake about it, the Lakers were bitten by the injury bug a lot this season, but injuries didn’t sign Michael Beasley to a $3.5 million contract and let Brook Lopez and Julius Randle walk away for nothing.
The Lakers were 6-11 in the 17 games following LeBron’s groin injury, but they finished the season 11-20 after he returned. Other players were injured as well, but we’ve seen LeBron do more with less in his four seasons in Cleveland.
Which brings me to the issue at hand: What should the Lakers do with the No. 4 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft?
Did you know, that in the three seasons that LeBron James has won the NBA Championship, he’s never had a rookie higher than the 28th overall pick on the roster?
Point guard Norris Cole was the highest draft pick to play with LeBron during a championship run back in 2013. While Cole was in the rotation during that title run, he was never more than just the third or fourth guy off the bench.
James once had an opportunity to teach and mentor the No. 1 overall pick when he returned to Cleveland before the 2014-2015 season, but he and the Cavaliers famously traded the first overall pick Andrew Wiggins to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Kevin Love.
Entering the NBA Draft Lottery, the Lakers had a 77 percent chance of landing the 11th overall pick. They had just a 2.8 percent chance of getting the fourth pick. Somehow, the basketball Gods smiled upon this dysfunctional franchise and the ping-pong balls fell in their favor.
LeBron James was ecstatic upon hearing the news. Pelinka called it a “win for the franchise,” and vowed to “explore every avenue with their new asset.”
When asked if he planned on trading the pick, Pelinka answered: “Of course, we’ll canvass the league and see what value that pick has, but either of those options [trading or keeping the pick] is an extraordinary win for the franchise.”
A “win” for this struggling franchise is not the opportunity to select fourth in the upcoming NBA Draft. It’s bringing a 17th championship back to Los Angeles.
Pelinka called the pick an “asset,” and that he would seek to determine it’s “value.” This leads me to believe that Pelinka has already overvalued the pick and will seek a King’s ransom in return. Experts believe that the 2019 NBA Draft could be the deepest in terms of talent since the 2003 NBA Draft that saw LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony go in the top five.
Don’t get me wrong, there will be some nice players at number four. Players like R.J. Barrett, DeAndre Hunter, Coby White, and Darius Garland. All of those players would be great additions to a young team. The only problem is that the Lakers aren’t rebuilding anymore. They have three more years of LeBron James and now is the time to go for broke.
The Lakers have had the No. 2 overall pick in three of the last four drafts, and had the No. 7 pick before that. Thus far, it has netted them Brandon Ingram, an often-injured Lonzo Ball, and the pick that got them Kyle Kuzma.
The Lakers have missed the postseason in six consecutive seasons, it’s the third longest drought currently in the NBA. It’s time for the youth movement and the rebuild to end. It’s time to trade for another superstar.
Yes, the Lakers have more plot twists nowadays than a bad daytime soap opera. Yes, they have more backstabbing, betrayal, and disappointment than the final season of Game of Thrones, but the NBA just handed them a gift, and now they need to cash it in.
The New Orleans Pelicans were the biggest winners of the NBA Draft Lottery, by winning the No. 1 overall pick and right to select Zion Williamson. Williamson is believed to be a generational talent, and by adding him to a young Pelicans team, it will make the eventual blow of losing Anthony Davis softer.
Former general manager Dell Demps is gone, and LeBron’s favorite front office executive, David Griffin, is now in charge. Davis is represented by LeBron’s agent and childhood friend, Rich Paul. Paul, Davis, and Griffin all sat down for a meeting in Los Angeles on Wednesday.
All reports indicate that Davis is still insistent on being traded, and that the Lakers are his preferred destination. I know, we’ve seen this story before, but the Lakers didn’t have the No. 4 overall pick back in February. Now they do.
It’s time for Pelinka and the Lakers to place a call to Griffin and dangle that “asset.” No more offering the entire roster only to have it leaked to the press. Tell the Pelicans to “canvas the league” to see what the value of Anthony Davis is. Tell Griffin to get everyone’s offer for Davis on the table, and when he does to call the Lakers, and they wll beat all of them.
I find it hard to believe the Pelicans would prefer a package of Kevin Knox and the No. 3 overall pick from the Knicks, or Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, and a mid-round pick from the Celtics. Not when the Lakers can offer Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, and the No. 4 overall pick.
If the Pelicans are adamant on not trading Davis to the Lakers, then let them settle for less, and trade the No. 4 overall pick and a player for Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards or Chris Paul of the Houston Rockets, or Derrick Favors of the Utah Jazz.
If you trade Lonzo Ball in any deal, pair that player and LeBron with a free agent point guard like Kyrie Irving or Kemba Walker. The list goes on and on.
The Lakers have a three-year window with LeBron to bring a title back to Tinseltown. Kobe and LeBron are doing their parts, it’s time for Pelinka and the front office to put their organizational dysfunction aside and do theirs.