For anyone who has been clinging stubbornly to the notion that LeBron James still had time to rescue the Los Angeles Lakers from the lottery, Saturday’s loss to the woeful Phoenix Suns should be the pivot point where it became clear that he would miss the postseason for the first time since his sophomore year in the NBA.
Now 30-33 and 4½ games out of eighth place in the Western Conference with 19 to go, the math likely isn’t there to begin with. And even then, if these Lakers had the ability to fix their dysfunction on the fly and put together a season-ending hot streak, is there really much of a point to all that just for the No. 8 seed?
But the most important issue surrounding the Lakers’ collapse has nothing to do with the future of coach Luke Walton or recriminations about the cast of misfits they chose to sign last offseason. Rather, everything really comes down to this: When Anthony Davis watches the Lakers these days, what does he see?
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Is it still the possibility of a championship window opening alongside James and whatever other big names Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are able to attract? Or are the last few weeks a preview of an uncomfortable decline for James as he reaches his mid-to-late 30s, trapping Davis’ prime NBA years in a franchise without an obvious path to build a contender?
Based on what we’ve seen recently from James — the deflection of blame, the chastising of younger players, the lack of engagement at times on defense and the injuries that caused the first long-term absence of his career — the latter suddenly seems just as likely of an outcome.
“I’ll say what I wanna say and do what I wanna do…. I got the power.”
@AntDavis23 doesn’t need your approval in reclaiming his career. #TheShopHBOpic.twitter.com/IKATt6Mekc
For so long, it has been a fool’s errand to bet against James, who will no doubt remain capable of amazing things on the basketball court for the foreseeable future. But this is rougher terrain than dragging the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals through the East, and time is running out for the Lakers to get it right. More to the point, what's happened lately could very well be a preview of James' inevitable decline.
Even if James’ body and game hold up better than 99% of players his age, he is still 34 and, thus, a short-term bet. If James has one more great run in him while still playing at a superstar level, it needs to happen in the next two years or the odds start to get really long.
It’s clear at this point that the Lakers would be foolish to go into next season with the same core of players around James. Maybe there’s a world in which Davis gets traded to the Boston Celtics or somewhere else this summer, putting that issue to bed and allowing the Lakers’ young players who have clearly been shaken by all the speculation to mentally move on. But even in that scenario, there is no evidence that surrounding James with Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma moves the Lakers ahead of the Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder or Denver Nuggets much less the Golden State Warriors.
The alternative would be acquiring a star player by other means. That conversation, of course, begins with Davis, whose representatives at Klutch Sports tried very publicly and failed to engineer that trade before the deadline.
Regardless of any other factors or hurt feelings in New Orleans, it would have made no sense for the Pelicans to turn down a deal built around Ball, Ingram and Kuzma if they liked that package. And their leverage could increase this summer with more trade partners in play, including Boston and potentially whoever lands the No. 1 draft pick.
But conversely, if the Lakers are able to make that deal with the Pelicans, they’ll presumably be left with James, Davis and not a whole lot else. The pressure would then be massive on a relatively inexperienced front office to land a third star and build out the rest of the roster in a free agent market with some big names but also a lot of risk.
There’s a lot of time between now and free agency, but the Lakers aren’t going in as favorites to land Kawhi Leonard or Klay Thompson. Who knows at this point what Kyrie Irving has in mind, but a reunion with James would be beyond bizarre. After that, does Jimmy Butler or Kemba Walker on a big contract really get the Lakers where they need to be?
When you start to project how much work Johnson and Pelinka really have to do this summer and what the options are going to be, it’s not a long mental journey to see how this could all go wrong for them.
And though Davis doesn’t have full control of the process that will lead him to a new team — the Pelicans should take the best deal, period — it would be foolish for him not to have an open mind about re-signing somewhere besides Los Angeles.
Perhaps he just wants to live there year-round, which would be a reasonable thing for an NBA superstar to want. But if he wants to maximize the chances of winning a title in the next half-dozen years before his own skills start to decline, he should take a careful accounting of what’s happened with the Lakers over the past few weeks and these lifeless losses to teams like the Suns and Grizzlies who won't be near the playoffs.
For the first time ever, teaming up with LeBron doesn’t seem like the surest bet.
Follow Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.
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