Columns, Opinions, Sports

Klein ’20: How to fix the Lakers

By
Sports Columnist
Sunday, March 3, 2019

When LeBron James signed a four-year, $154 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers last offseason, the traditional NBA powerhouse seemed like a sure contender in the Western Conference for years to come. With James staying long-term, a young core and the city’s attraction to stars, most assumed that the Lakers would be a threat to win championships. But those high hopes have certainly not come to fruition so far. After an unsuccessful trade bid for Anthony Davis, the Lakers are 30-33, 10th in the Western Conference, and James looks fed up with the team already. Is there any way to fix the Lakers?

First of all, team president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka must stop looking for short-term solutions. Trading away Ivica Zubac for Mike Muscala was a perplexing move when announced and only looks worse as the days pass. Zubac, at the age of 21, is talented enough already to have a role on a playoff team, while still rapidly improving. This season, he has averaged 8.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game in just 16.4 minutes.

Why trade a solid asset for Muscala, a journeyman three-point shooter who could never play major minutes in an important playoff game? Yes, the Lakers need three-point shooting, but not at the price of a young starter when the team isn’t contending for anything this year.

The Zubac trade only compounded Johnson and Pelinka’s previous mistakes. The signings of Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley were met by confusion from the basketball world, and deservedly so. James excels when surrounded by shooters and rebounders who work well off-ball — players like Kyle Korver, who can drill open shots set up by James’ penetration, and Tristan Thompson, who secures extra possessions via the offensive glass. Why surround James with role players ill-suited to his needs? Rondo and Stephenson especially need the ball in their hands to create and show little effort when not involved in a play. The lack of three-point shooters led Johnson and Pelinka to make the desperate Muscala trade. Far better to sign the right role players in the offseason than try to chase them and give up assets.

Beyond providing the right supporting cast for James, the Lakers must acquire another star to pair with him. At the age of 34, James hasn’t shown his customary bounce and suffered a groin injury that kept him out for a considerable period. Gone are the days when James could carry a subpar team deep into the playoffs.

As mentioned before, the Lakers tried to trade for Davis before the deadline, but the Pelicans demanded a great amount in return — Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, other pieces and more than five draft picks. If New Orleans remains hesitant to trade with the Lakers, LA must look for free agent options. Los Angeles will have the cap space to add another max player: Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker could all look at the Lakers. Maybe even Kyrie Irving? Leonard and Irving represent LA’s best chance at creating a contender through free agency, since Butler and Walker can’t transform the Lakers on their own like the former two can.

James himself must adapt as well. In past years, he has taken to conserving energy on the defensive end of the floor, not expending much effort so that he can control the offense on every possession. But now, his defensive lapses are actively hurting the Lakers. After the team’s recent loss to Memphis, several video clips circulated of James standing around and providing little help, sometimes blaming his teammates, as Grizzlies players made open three-pointers and dominated in the paint.

James could change matters by playing more off-ball offensively, sacrificing on that end of the floor so he can participate on defense and actually guard opposing players. It wouldn’t hurt to show a little more patience with his teammates, too. Team chemistry is an important part of successful defense and pointing fingers after every play doesn’t help.

In the end, the success of the Lakers will come down to how much Ingram, Ball and Kuzma improve. Ingram is already on the right track: He continues to get better each year, averaging 18.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per game this season while wreaking havoc defensively with his long arms. The better those guys play, the more likely it becomes that New Orleans will actually accept a trade from the Lakers for Davis. And if a trade does not go through, Los Angeles will need the three as playoff starters. Leonard or Irving would solve most of the Lakers’ problems, but they remain unlikely targets.

If the Lakers end up with Walker or Butler, at least one of Ingram, Kuzma or Ball must become a bona fide star to mount a championship team.

George Klein ’20 can be reached at george_klein@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.