The Lakers are really just wasting everyone’s time at this point. They’ve ever so slightly teased that they might be ready to turn the corner and win some games—like with a dramatic victory in Boston, or Brandon Ingram’s recent hot streak—only to immediately crash back down to Earth, with losses against subpar teams that have become more sad than surprising. Entering Wednesday, L.A. is 5 1/2 games out of the eighth spot in the West, somehow only a game ahead of a now-mostly Anthony Davis-less New Orleans squad. There’s even been some chatter that LeBron James should be shut down with the Lakers playoff hopes careening off Mulholland Drive. With that in mind, here’s how I think L.A. should handle the rest of this season.
1. Don’t fire Luke Walton. This is an obvious one, but then again, we’ve been scratching our heads about this front office ever since they signed Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, and Michael Beasley as their sage veterans. Walton isn’t perfect. He’s also been cursed with the task of holding together a locker room that was blown up by LeBron-aided trade rumors, and he was given a roster that never really made sense, both in addition to James’s groin injury. Walton’s rotations haven’t been perfect, but that’s a little bit of a chicken-and-the-egg situation considering his options.
I don’t think Walton makes it beyond the summer, which is a shame. It seems like a lifetime ago now, but the young guys were responding well to their coach the season before James joined. It’s clear the LeBron camp hasn’t been as thrilled with Walton. Ultimately, he’ll be the easiest person to scapegoat if/when the Lakers miss the playoffs. For now, firing him before the offseason just adds another circus element to a stretch run that’s already been too much of a horror show. Don’t invite any more problems than necessary, especially when getting rid of Walton is hardly a solution.
2. Don’t shut down LeBron James. Shutting down James has become the talk show topic du jour in the Association. Should L.A. start preserving his body? What’s the point of wasting James in a lost season? Does life have any meaning outside of our societal constructs? I don’t think sitting James is a good idea.
The Lakers already alienated most of the team when they were being publicly bandied about in trade rumors. Sitting Bron and forcing the young guys to endure more losses without him would only accentuate the schism in the locker room. A better way to show that this is an actual team, with more than only one person who will be a part of the future, is to make them go out as a team. Give the kids as many reps alongside James as you can before you have to decide what to do with them this summer. Maybe lessen LeBron’s workload and bring his minutes down. But letting his summer vacation start extra early would send a bad message to a young core that’s already gone through enough drama this season.
3. Try to make the playoffs. And while James is still playing, don’t give up hope! Seriously, I wish some people would stop fetishizing the lottery and trembling at the thought of a first-round sweep. Making the postseason is better than missing it. It doesn’t matter if the Lakers get their doors blown off by the Warriors. It would be great experience for Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart to experience the intensity of the playoffs, or what it’s like when Golden State cares a tiny bit more than it does during the regular season. (It’s still only the first round.) However dim L.A.’s hopes may seem, throwing in the towel would be counterintuitive. A franchise this haughty that’s missed the playoffs this many years in a row shouldn’t scoff at the notion of an eighth seed.
4. Empower the kids. Under the Nadkarni Plan, while L.A. is cutting down on a few of LeBron’s minutes and still fighting hard every night, it will also hand the team back over to the young guys. Again, the Lakers still have valuable time to figure out who can make it work around James and who should absolutely be expendable come the summer. Accepting defeat won’t help anyone’s progress. A good way to combat the awkwardness of February’s constant trade talk would be to let the Ingrams and Kuzmas of the world feel like they have ownership of the team over the next few weeks, and making sure they have something to play for.
The more the front office accepts this is a lost season, the more they drive home the point that LeBron is the only person with equity in this situation moving forward. See if Walton can recreate some of the vibes from the end of the last year. Most importantly, L.A. needs to make sure it doesn’t invite complacency and boredom into the locker room by looking ahead to next year. The Lakers can’t let these games feel like a waste of time, because if the Davis trade doesn’t happen, some of these people are going to be here for the long haul.
5. Burn those purple uniforms. That black stripe down the side is so ugly. If the Lakers are really going to sign one of the best players of all time, and then miss the playoffs after said player has been to eight straight Finals, they should at least have the dignity to do so in jerseys that look good. Maybe next year’s alternates can be a Looney Tunes uni.