Five Questions Whose Answers Could Change the Los Angeles Lakers’ Future
Less than a year and a half after winning their 17th NBA championship, the Los Angeles Lakers are finally entering what amounts to the end-game of the LeBron James era as the King only has one year remaining on his contract.
As their championship aspirations fade to reality, the Lakers appear to be destined at best to be a play-in team this season, making it two straight years plagued by poor roster construction and extensive injuries to their superstars. But the challenges facing the Lakers this offseason are going to determine whether the franchise can regain its footing as a legitimate championship contender or whether they will be forced into some form of a rebuild.
Heading into the final third of what has been to now a disappointing season, here are the five major franchise-defining questions the Los Angeles Lakers must answer as the team enters into the end-game of the LeBron James era.
1. Can LeBron James Still Carry the Los Angeles Lakers to Title?
When you look at the stats for the Lakers this season, what jumps out other than the disappointing 27–33 record is LeBron James’ negative net rating for the season. The Lakers are actually losing the minutes LeBron James plays.
LeBron James’ 109.7 offensive rating less his 111.4 defensive rating give him a -1.7 net rating for this season, which is the first time in 18 seasons he’s had a negative net rating since the -2.0 net rating during his 2003–04 rookie season. Winning the LeBron minutes has never been the Lakers problem until this year. Last year, LeBron’s net rating was +9.2 and the year before +8.5. The Last five games, LeBron’s net rating has been a -10.2, 12th on the Lakers.
Other than the heroic fourth quarter in the Utah Jazz win, LeBron James has struggled by his standard over the last five games, posting 28.4/9.4/5.4 but shooting just 48.7/32.4/80.0% and averaging a Westbrookish 5.2 turnovers. Assuming Anthony Davis is out for next 12 to 18 games, the Lakers need to be careful not to overwork LeBron and risk him suffering a major injury like happened to Kobe Bryant. Truth is LeBron James needs to rest the knee now.
The Lakers should seriously consider shutting down LeBron James for a week or two rather than risking him getting injured. The remote chance the Lakers could win #18 this season is not worth risking the health of LeBron James.
2. Should the Lakers Continue the Close Alliance with Klutch Sports?
Fortunately, I believe any question about the future of the relationship between the Lakers and Klutch Sports has been already been addressed by LeBron James and Rich Paul meeting with Rob Pelinka and Jeanie Buss.
The next step would be confirmation from Rob Pelinka and Jeanie Buss the Lakers/Klutch alliance was still in good standing and they’re looking forward to making major moves this summer to rebuild the roster to championship level. Getting LeBron to sign an extension will require the Lakers to be willing to trade first round picks, take back players with multiple-year contracts, and pay whatever luxury taxes it takes to compete and win NBA championships.
There’s always been a certain amount of friction between LeBron James and whatever team he plays for because they often have different agendas, usually LeBron in total win-now mode and the team not wanting to sacrifice the future. Franky, I think it’s telling that the news about LeBron and Rich meeting with Rob and Jeanie all came from Klutch Sports rather than from the Lakers. LeBron and Rich smartly understanding they can’t push the Lakers like other teams.
The close alliance with Klutch Sport has been a huge advantage the Lakers have had over other NBA teams. Klutch delivered a message but so did the Lakers. The Lakers/Klutch alliance should continue even after LeBron James retires.
3. Is Anthony Davis Still Right Superstar to Take Baton from LeBron?
Just 18 months ago, we were talking about when AD would take the baton from LeBron as the Lakers’ alpha player. If another Davis injury ends a second straight Lakers season, the discussion about AD may be whether to trade him.
Now that it looks like Anthony Davis will have just 6 to 9 regular season games left after returning from injury to get ready for the playoffs, the Lakers should hope for a replay of the bubble, where AD had only 8 regular seasons games. While the Lakers/Klutch breakup story was hot, everyone started talking about what a haul the Lakers could get for LeBron and AD. The true value of both these players is elite. They’re generational. You don’t trade them away.
But we also can’t ignore the how injuries to both LeBron and AD have hurt the team. For LeBron, it’s Father Time and personal load management limiting him. Before this injury, I thought AD was getting back to playing like the bubble AD. Part of the decision of whom the Lakers pursue to replace LeBron James will depend on how well Anthony Davis plays the rest of this season and next. Injury worry could impact how the Lakers use AD but he’s still LeBron’s heir apparent.
We’re not yet at the point of figuring out how to get positioned to draft Bronny James or or how exactly Giannis will replace LeBron on the Lakers but for now Anthony Davis, for at least next year, will be the Lakers’ future alpha star.
4. Should Lakers Rethink Their Total Commitment to Small Ball?
While the Lakers won their 17th championship playing small ball with LeBron James at the four and Anthony Davis the five, they should rethink committing entirely to small ball going forward to save wear-and-tear on LeBron and AD.
While Davis may be the best small ball five and James the best small ball four, having an injury prone center and overworked 37-year old power forward banging in the two most physical positions in the league might not be so smart. With Davis out for four to five more weeks, the Lakers need to play Dwight Howard at the five more to avoid burning out or injuring LeBron James at the five. That’s a strategy the Lakers should adopting next season.
The problem with the Lakers playing small ball is the lack of a third 3&D front court player to complement LeBron James and Anthony Davis, either a small forward who can guard big wings or stretch four or five who can protect the rim. The best solution for the Lakers could be to go big and trade for a stretch center like Myles Turner or Christian Wood, who would allow the Lakers to play five-out small ball on offense but with the size to protect the rim on defense.
Having a modern stretch five center like Turner or Wood would make the Lakers more versatile and dangerous in the playoff and reduce the banging and physicality that could wear down LeBron or AD and lead to their injury.
5. What Should the Lakers Be Looking for in Next Head Coach?
There is a consensus among the media that Frank Vogel is unlikely to return as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Short of a miraculous postseason finish by the Lakers, this year will probably be Vogel’s last as the Lakers’ head coach.
Firing Vogel raises the question of what should the Lakers be looking for in their next head coach. They clearly need a head coach who knows the game at a high level and whom superstars like LeBron James and Anthony Davis will respect. Ultimately, it would also help if the next head coach had played for or had a connection to the Lakers as that would make it easier to hire him and having played in the league is often an advantage when coaching players.
The Lakers should avoid bringing in another recycled NBA coach like David Fizdale. Ideally, they should look to make a bold hire like the Brooklyn Nets did with Steve Nash and consider hiring Rajon Rondo as the Lakers’ next head coach. Rondo is not only one of the smartest players who ever put on an NBA uniform but also a fiery competitor who knows the Lakers’ front office and has played with LeBron and AD and many of the players on the current roster.
The Lakers would supplement Rondo’s staff with a couple of proven former head coaches since he has not coached before but by choosing someone with his background and potential, the Lakers could make a quick, smooth transition.