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The Lakers’ 42-point loss to the Pacers on Tuesday was the kind of lowpoint LeBron’s Cavaliers seemingly hit at least once a season during his second tenure in Cleveland. It was usually around that time people like me questioned the team and said they didn’t deserve to make the Finals, only to sit back in awe as they did any way. So it would be wise not to overreact to L.A.’s embarrassing defeat in the immediate aftermath. Still, it’s a little disconcerting how the Lakers have reached this point. Few people believed LeBron would be happy with a pure holdover season during his championship window. Sure enough, James, through his agent, is basically pressuring L.A.’s front office to trade every single promising player and asset for Anthony Davis. If the Pelicans ultimately hold out for a better offer come July, will the Lakers be able to survive the drama?
L.A. has been so laser-focused on acquiring Davis, I’m not sure Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka, or anyone else for that matter has considered what would happen if they didn’t get him. The consequences wouldn’t necessarily be catastrophic, but the fallout is far reaching. First and foremost, without Davis, what’s the Lakers most realistic path to title contention? L.A. can clear out (close enough to) a max cap slot this summer, thanks to the cadre of one-year deals the front office handed out after signing LeBron. But all that does is make them one of many buyers in an increasingly crowded free-agent market. The Clippers, Knicks, and Nets will all have huge cap space this summer as well, and even the Sixers can jump into the race if they decide not to bring back Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. Those are a lot of attractive options for stars to consider, and increasingly, the Lakers don’t seem to be on many players’ lists.
Kevin Durant is a total pipe dream. Kawhi Leonard’s reported interest is in the Clippers, not Lakers. Butler didn’t have the Lakers on his preferred landing spots when he wanted out of Minnesota. Kyrie Irving is an absurd longshot at best. So even with the L.A. providing LeBron and all its glory, who wants to play there? The Lakers options after that group aren’t great. They can try to sign a Kemba Walker or Khris Middleton, but that’s a big drop off from Anthony Davis. Or they can hand out a bunch of one-year deals again, theoretically wasting another year of James, and then praying Davis won’t want to re-sign with whatever team he’s been traded to. In both scenarios—signing a third-tier star or punting again—the Lakers aren’t title favorites for 2020.
L.A. also needs to figure out what to make of its young core. Davis is obviously a generational talent, so describing Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Kyle Kuzma as expendable isn’t quite fair. But outside of Kuzma and Josh Hart, the Lakers’ youngsters haven’t progressed in a way that makes them believable contenders. Ingram plays much better without James on the floor, and it’s still unclear what his ceiling really is even then. Ball’s shooting is still a major issue, and that will always complicate his fit with James. Kuzma and Hart are nice, but neither of them have the potential to be the second-best guy on a title team, especially as LeBron ages.
The Lakers’ young guys are far from the first players to be mentioned in trade rumors only to stay put. But it’s fair to wonder how many rifts are being created as this Davis saga drags out, and if any of Ingram, Ball, or Kuzma will eventually want no part of playing with James. (Kyrie may have called to apologize, but don’t forget why he requested that trade out of Cleveland.)
Essentially, without Davis, the Lakers’ path to title contention becomes incredibly murky. L.A. won’t simply have its pick of stars this offseason, not when equally attractive destinations exist around the league (and in the same city.) The young core isn’t completely hopeless, and could have a growth spurt still to come. At the same time, it was the constant trade rumors bending to the whims of LeBron’s happiness that drove his best teammate away in his last stop, and James is running that risk again when he plays puppetmaster behind the scenes.
If all this sounds bleak, it’s because it is. LeBron is getting older, and the Lakers’ path to realistically winning a championship narrows every second Davis isn’t on the roster. (And trading for Davis doesn’t guarantee a trophy, but it undoubtedly puts L.A. in the conversation.) The only real antidote to these issues is James himself. Lost in all this hoopla—and his own injury—is LeBron the player.
If the Lakers swing and miss on Davis, the pressure reverts back to James to will his team into the latter rounds of the postseason. We saw him do it in 2007 and again 11 years later, carrying squads that would have been lottery bound without him all the way to the Finals. Maybe LeBron is still capable. Maybe James, Kemba, Ingram, Hart, and Kuzma will be enough in a world with Kevin Durant on the Knicks. Like his Cavs years, it would be wise not to lose all your faith in James after one particularly horrific loss. But also like his Cavs years, if the Lakers aren’t able to acquire Anthony Davis, the only way to the top is squarely on the back of LeBron. And that route only gets riskier with each passing season.