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The Young Lakers Are Fucking This Up

Photo: LM Otero (AP)

LeBron James went down with a groin injury way back on Christmas Day. You cannot build, even in theory, a cast of teammates and a basketball ecosystem that wouldn’t suffer in the immediate aftermath of losing a player of LeBron’s prominence, but the young Lakers, at least in theory, should’ve been relatively fine.

Last season’s Lakers, with no LeBron, and oriented around the precocious playmaking of a pair of rookies, went 24-20 from January 7 onward. Just the expected development of Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma, plus another year under the belt of Brandon Ingram, should’ve been enough for the Lakers to play respectable basketball without LeBron around. Hell, they only had LeBron for 34 games before he went down—the core of last year’s team has a lot more NBA experience playing without LeBron than playing with him. What’s more, the theory of everything the Lakers did after signing LeBron last summer involved juicing the roster with guys whose contributions wouldn’t be so LeBron-dependent. Magic Johnson had the idea that LeBron’s last Cleveland team was undone at least in part by how hopeless his supporting players were without LeBron around to chop up their dinners into little bite-sized portions. That downside was therefore the focus of Los Angeles’s moves in free agency, signing veterans who could do some of their own playmaking and shot-creating. Put those old heads around three ascending young stars and you should have yourself a recipe for smooth sailing.

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Instead, the Lakers have spent the time LeBron’s been out sucking and losing. They’re 5–10 in the 15 games he’s missed, with losses to the spiraling Knicks and the flatly hopeless Cavaliers, and a pair of losses to the wobbly Timberwolves. Offense is the problem. Since LeBron went down, Kuzma and Ingram are each shooting 28 percent from beyond the arc; Lonzo is shooting a more respectable 37 percent from out there, but has hit an appalling 26 percent of his free throw attempts, and has the usage of Luke Kornet. Alarmingly, during LeBron’s absence the Lakers are more than two points per hundred possessions better on offense with Lonzo off the floor. The LeBron-less Lakers have the fourth worst offensive rating in all of basketball, and they’ve slipped to ninth in the Western Conference.

This is an inopportune time for the young Lake men to play like replacement-ass bozos. The trade deadline is now less than two weeks away, and Bill Oram of The Athletic reported Friday that the Lakers are interested in getting something done, at least in part because missing the playoffs this season would be a huge, huge embarrassment. Their trade interests aren’t limited to a superstar who can join up with LeBron and make the Lakers into a real championship contender—they’re also reportedly interested in any dang veteran who can knock down some three-pointers without mucking up this summer’s salary cap space. Guys like Terrence Ross and Wayne Ellington and Trevor Ariza. What’s sickening is, Ross and Ellington would probably start games for the Lakers! Ariza, by virtue of the fact that he can defend a couple positions and also, you know, take and make three-pointers, would be an actual rotation upgrade over Ingram, certainly on a team dedicated to winning now.

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It’s that larger trade ambition, though, that bears watching. Oram reported that the Lakers would be willing to include Lonzo, Kuzma, and Ingram in a trade for Anthony Davis. First of all, no shit! Davis might be the most gifted player in all of basketball, and the Lakers would be crazy to turn down that trade. But it’s worth noting that however the Pelicans might’ve felt about that trade back in June, they would surely feel a lot worse about it in late January, with the Lakers sagging back into the same pack of also-rans as the Pelicans themselves, behind the combined efforts of the three players they’d be taking back in the deal. Part of the crummy business of professional sports is the hot-shot Lakers kids aren’t just charged with growing and developing as contributors on the Lakers—they’re also auditioning for roles in blockbuster deals to bring in their replacements. Fucking up when they’ve got the spotlight means fucking up both Plan A and Plan B.

A lot hinges on this stretch without LeBron. The West is a damn meat-grinder, and FiveThirtyEight gives the Lakers the lowest chance of making the playoffs they’ve had since the start of the season. Luke Walton has needed a vote of confidence once already in his brief Lakers career; Magic has already gotten pissed at him for no good reason this season, and now LeBron’s people want him gone. Jobs and roles and trade scenarios and future contracts and future free agency spending sprees are all subject to how the Lakers survive until LeBron comes back. Magic is sweating each new underwhelming showing from Ingram like Marty McFly watching siblings vanish from his photo from the future. It’s a precarious, unforgiving situation for the young Lakers to find themselves in, and under the strain they’ve thrown up an ugly barrage of scattershot jumpers and bricked free-throws.

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It’s too early to say that the big trio of Lakers’ young guys, outside of the specific context of what the Lakers are hoping to accomplish this season, are butt. Kuzma is still fun as shit. Ingram can still be a terror driving to the bucket, and he has moments where he looks like a future star. I swear I still believe Lonzo could be a really good player on a fast and aggressive team built to play to his strengths. But that’s just it—the Lakers aren’t any longer oriented around these young dudes. The team that finished last season looking like the next big thing is long gone. The Lakers went out and grabbed the game’s most prominent fulcrum, and then filled out the roster with veterans at least theoretically suited to functioning in his orbit. They are a team with ambitions that, one way or another, do not include missing the playoffs. For the sake of everyone involved, LeBron can’t get back onto the court soon enough.

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