Lakers fans really thought that their team was going to go all the way to the NBA Finals. Before the Denver Nuggets completed an unlikely impressive sweep of the Lakers, that hopeful mentality was justified by the way LA bounced back from a disappointing 2-10 start.
At the start of the season, the Lakers had a projected 0.3 percent chance of making the playoffs. But, ultimately, they ended up making the Play-In and getting past the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors to reach the conference finals.
The Lakers’ evident comeback could be attributed to some proactive changes they made during the offseason and executing a major roster overhaul midway through the season. They sent away Russell Westbrook in an eight-player trade and acquired D’Angelo Russell and Jarred Vanderbilt who helped bring in success for the Lakers when they needed it.
LA’s significant changes largely paid dividends but they still fell to the more cohesive Denver lineup, led by the talented two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. Even with LeBron James and Anthony Davis there, Jokic was the man to beat on the floor.
Jokic had three triple-doubles in the series and saved his best for the closeout game: 30 points, 14 rebounds, and 13 assists. He always had a constant presence around the rim and hit those crazy step-back 3-pointers to stop the Lakers from coming close. The way the Joker played really made every possession difficult for Rui Hachimura and AD.
LeBron continues to amaze
At age 38, James was still the best player on the floor for the Lakers. He had an amazing first-half performance where he scored 31 of his 40 points, carrying the offensive load in Game 4. There were times that seemed he was the only one who had the urgency to keep playing. However, despite putting on a masterclass earlier in the game, their 15-point lead was erased in the first five minutes of the third quarter.
James just didn’t have the energy to extend his high level of play for the entire game as he played the full 48 minutes. He only drained one of six shots in the last frame and his fatigue really showed - he stopped driving to the hoop and had a hard time chasing Jamal Murray.
Now, what? Falling short again, James left a cryptic message which suggests that he might be retiring next year.
“I got a lot to think about. Just personally, with me moving forward with the game of basketball, I got a lot to think about,” he shared.
Looks like James also has demands for the Lakers' front office to act swiftly in trading good picks to make another playoff run next year.
Building around the dynamic duo
It’s sad to admit but AD hasn’t been the best in giving James the support he needs. His performance this year was a far cry from during their championship run three years ago in the bubble.
He’s been really inconsistent in the postseason, making James’ usage rate go higher by making all the plays.
Nonetheless, one inconsistent postseason shouldn’t define Davis’ overall value for the Lakers. He’s still a dominant force defensively, on the glass, and in the mid-range. Davis just has to stay healthy and assume bigger responsibility if he’s going for another run with James.
The management is now faced with challenges, especially with whom to surround the duo of James and Davis next season. Will they trade their free agents or keep them for longevity? The franchise has a history of fostering talent but letting them go to excel on other teams like Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, and Brandon Ingram.
Overall, the Lakers are at a crossroads. They played well this season but not enough for a championship. There is too much burden on James and Davis - something that isn’t sustainable anymore.