LeBron James’ first Lakers season is over — here’s what it taught us
By Bill Oram
The first year of the LeBron James experience is over in Los Angeles. With six games remaining in the regular season, the Lakers opted to shut down James rather than have him play out the string of a season that has fallen unimaginably short of expectations.
Not only will the Lakers miss the playoffs, but they also will finish well below .500 for a sixth straight season, a streak that was supposed to be emphatically reversed when James decided to leave Cleveland and sign with the Lakers last July.
In the 55 games he played for the Lakers in Year One of a contract that will pay him $153 million over four years, James averaged 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists — all better than the numbers he put up in 2012-13, his last MVP season. However, the 2018-19 season will be remembered as an overwhelming failure and as the one in which James finally succumbed to a major injury: the groin strain that kept him out for 17 consecutive games in December and January.
While no one on the Lakers will be sad to see this season end, it can still be instructive for them and their fanbase. Here are some things we learned from LeBron’s 16th NBA season and first in Los Angeles.
He can no longer be viewed as immune to injuries.
It was five days before his 34th birthday that James suffered the most serious injury of his illustrious career. And while it is impossible at this point to know whether that was simply a fluke or the first sign of his body wearing down after more than 46,000 career minutes, one cannot simply rule out the latter.
James has enjoyed remarkable health throughout his career. But the groin strain will almost certainly change the way the Lakers and James’ future coaches view his time on the court. Luke Walton held James to a career-low 35.2 minutes per game this season, and in future years, Walton or whoever replaces him will likely be even more cautious on that front.
When he’s healthy, he’s still LeBron.
Statistically, there was virtually no decline in James’ performance as a Laker from his past seasons in Cleveland and Miami. In the 34 games before he went down on Christmas at Golden State, James averaged 27.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists while shooting 51.8 percent from the field. After: 27.5 points, 8.7 rebounds, 10 assists and 49.7 percent. The guy is a machine. The decline could be seen more in moments, like when he was blocked by Mario Hezonjain the waning moments of a loss to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
The question becomes how the Lakers fill in the gaps around James’ statistical greatness. Defensively, the Lakers struggled to compensate for James’ regular-season deficiencies, and they did not remain competitive long enough to reap the rewards for all the energy he was theoretically conserving by taking defensive possessions off. James has long found an extra level in the postseason and perhaps would have again this season, but the Lakers simply couldn’t get there.
The LeBron effect is very real.
Kevin Durant said it in December: “I get why anyone wouldn’t want to be in that environment because it’s toxic. Especially when the attention is bullshit attention, fluff.” The Warriors superstar’s comments to Ric Bucher caused an incredible stir, but who would argue with them now?
The pressure that accompanied James’ arrival not only changed the Lakers’ outlook on their head coach, but it also forced them to consider trading half their roster for Anthony Davis — a situation that shook the locker room amid the midseason swoon that eventually spelled the end of the Lakers’ playoff hopes.
The 24-hour LeBron news cycle took its toll on the organization, whether it was an injured James sashaying into Staples Center with a glass of wine or him ducking into a New York steakhouse with free agent Carmelo Anthony. James sitting apart from his teammates in a 42-point blowout in Indiana became headline news. With LeBron, everything did.
That may have been inevitable when James was starting alongside three players in their early 20s who have at various points been seen as the future stars of the franchise. The push-pull between LeBron and the young guys created an uncomfortable dynamic throughout the season, despite his best efforts to try to relate to them with music and through social media.
He needs shooters around him.
The Lakers seem to have figured this one out, no matter how clumsy their approach may have been. Look no further than the desperate trade-deadline deal that sent Ivica Zubac to the Clippers for Mike Muscala, a stretch forward who has played all of 102 minutes in 11 games. Such a severe course correction was a response to the Lakers’ shooting woes.
For most of the season, they ranked last in 3-point shooting (as of Saturday, they’re 29th at 33.2 percent, ahead of only Phoenix) thanks to the front office’s determination to surround James with ball handlers, not shooters, to lessen the load. It did not help that the returning Lakers, notably Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, were not reliable marksmen to begin with.
We are no closer to knowing whether he will help the Lakers restore their championship legacy.
That is perhaps the most damning part of this season.
James continued to produce at an extremely high level — he was a popular MVP pick before his injury — but for what? It’s not clear that it meant anything to the Lakers’ ultimate goal of getting back to the playoffs and winning a championship. Next season, LeBron will be another year older, presumably at a greater risk of injury, while the onus falls on the Lakers’ front office to surround James with players who will help him win.
He remains one of the most elite players in the NBA, still capable of incredible feats, but as his career progresses, LeBron will need more help than before and certainly more than what the Lakers gave him. The two players with the best net ratings alongside James were Alex Caruso and Johnathan Williams — players on two-way contracts.
Ideally, the Lakers would have used the first year of James’ L.A. chapter to take a step forward, learning some things about how he fit with the players they put around him while making a return to the playoffs. The injuries were too widespread, the sample sizes too small and the chaos too persistent. What little the Lakers accomplished this season will likely make them more appealing in free agency, but an expected coaching change will only further kill what little continuity the organization has.
In short, the Lakers will likely be starting at square one again next season, when James will be starting at square 17.