How LeBron James, Darvin Ham and the Lakers reached a critical offseason crossroads

?url=https%3A%2F%2Fcalifornia times sp lakers hawks 24 gmf

LeBron James and his Lakers teammates were overcome with disbelief. They rushed to the monitor on the scorer’s table in Minnesota to see the play in dispute.

They pleaded and pointed at the zoomed-in image of the toe of James’ right sneaker and the blue three-point line it might or might not have touched.

James was sure he was behind it. Replay officials were not.

The shot, which would’ve tied the game and probably forced overtime, was ultimately ruled a two. They lost.

On Dec. 30 in Minnesota, the Lakers were an inch toenail away from a win, so close to some salvation after a brutal month.

“Stevie Wonder can see that, champ,” James said after the loss. “ Over there in the replay center or whatever, somebody over there eating a ham sandwich, or somebody made the call.”

With the Lakers’ season over, a frame-by-frame examination of what happened isn’t necessary.

“Your eyes will tell you,” said one Lakers insider not authorized to publicly discuss team operations.

There was no need to enlarge or enhance, no reason to squint. The Lakers were good, maybe even close to better than that.

Yet they weren’t championship good and maybe not even contender good, a precious season gone with a first-round playoff exit and changes likely on the way.

Too many one-sided minutes, too much bad injury luck. An aging star. A controversial coach. An in-season tournament title and a midseason crisis.

It never was going to end with a trip to the NBA Finals. No need for video review to prove that.

Now that the Lakers’ season has ended, the impossible autopsy begins.

How good could the Lakers have been had they been healthier, had their two primary on-ball defenders — Jarred Vanderbilt and Gabe Vincent — been healthy and a regular part of their rotation? How good would they have been if their coach, Darvin Ham, abandoned reliability and balance to lean into talent earlier by simply putting his most talented players on the court to start games?

Who is to blame? Who gets credit? Who returns? Who goes?

The questions start with James, who somehow established new highs in his 21st NBA season, playing 71 games (the most he has played in a season for the Lakers) and shooting 41% from three-point range. He averaged 25.7 points, 8.3 assists and 7.3 rebounds at 39 years old. No other player has done that after age 30.

He has done it five times.

James can turn down $51.4-million this offseason and exercise his player option, making him an unrestricted free agent. If he sought a max deal elsewhere, he’d be paid more than $55 million per season.

This season answered questions about his durability and effectiveness as he neared 40 (he’ll hit that mark next December), but his consistency on the defensive end was an issue.

Asked about his future before the All-Star Game, James praised the Lakers while giving himself wiggle room.

“I don’t know. I am a Laker, and I am happy and been very happy being a Laker the last six years, and hopefully it stays that way,” he said . “But I don’t have the answer to how long it is or which uniform I’ll be in. Hopefully it is with the Lakers. It’s a great organization and so many greats. But we’ll see. I don’t know how it’s going to end, but it’s coming.”

He’s not the only Laker with a decision.

D’Angelo Russell can opt out, leaving $18.7 million on the table. Up until the postseason, that seemed like a lock, though it’s hard to know if his struggles against the Denver Nuggets will change that calculus.

Christian Wood, Jaxson Hayes and Cam Reddish also have player options for next season. Spencer Dinwiddie and Taurean Prince are unrestricted free agents and Max Christie is headed to restricted free agency.

The Lakers will pick 17th and 55th in the upcoming draft, though their first-round pick could end up with New Orleans. Insiders believe the Lakers, though, will end up keeping that pick while sending their 2025 first-round choice to New Orleans to finish the Anthony Davis trade.

After the Lakers were torched by Memphis’ Ja Morant for 28 points in the third quarter of a loss in February 2023, one player looked to Ham.

“That guy,” the player said, “needs to be better.”

In-game adjustments were slow that season — Morant exploited that. But a strong postseason helped the Lakers move past Memphis and Golden State before they ran into the Nuggets, the eventual champions, and were swept in the conference finals.

Scouts who questioned Ham during the season were impressed with his game plans in the postseason, the Lakers a step ahead of both the Grizzlies and the Warriors in the first two rounds. Ham and the Lakers’ run deep into the playoffs earned him and the roster a chance to run things back. Continuity was prioritized, the Lakers adding around the edges.

But the first signs of trouble for the revamped Lakers appeared in the preseason, Ham having one of his biggest decisions made for him with injuries to Vanderbilt and Rui Hachimura.

Vanderbilt’s preseason was cut short because of a heel injury, and Hachimura had the first of his three multigame absences, this one because of a concussion in the Lakers’ third game.

It meant Ham turned to Prince, a player he previously coached in Atlanta, as a starting wing. Vincent, signed for his toughness, defense and firepower, quickly was sidelined because of a knee injury.

In a blink, the two best perimeter defenders, Vanderbilt and Vincent, were unavailable.

Nine games into the season, Ham moved Austin Reaves to the bench — a move that was unpopular inside his locker room. Reaves, coming off a strong summer for Team USA, was slowed by a hip injury early and struggled defensively (he showed improvement in the second half of the season).

Reaves stayed on the bench, with Ham using Reddish as a starter, hoping to unlock the former lottery pick as a defensive specialist. Through the lineup changes, the Lakers cruised to win the first in-season tournament, another sign they, and Ham, were maybe at their best when the stakes were high.

But immediately after the tournament, the season threatened to go off the rails. The schedule was cruel, the Lakers on the road for most of a month while the quality of opponents spiked. Emotional and physical fatigue intersected as the first trade rumors surfaced.

Desperate to establish more defensive identity, Ham would use Reddish, Prince and Vanderbilt as starters — meaning three key members from last season’s team, Reaves, Russell and Hachimura, all were coming off the bench.

Russell’s December put him squarely in trade talks, with some people involved with the Lakers wondering how much better they would’ve been had they landed Mike Conley instead inthe 2023 deadline trade that transformed their season.

Ham’s job security would be called into question as the team entered 2024 with the good vibes from the in-season tournament gone. After a so-so January ended with the Lakers getting blown out on back-to-back nights in Houston and Atlanta, James posted an hourglass emoji on social media, a reminder that his patience was waning.

He and Anthony Davis sat out the next game, in Boston, and the Lakers pulled off an incredible win. Vanderbilt, though, suffered a major foot injury and sat out the rest of the season.

Had Vanderbilt not injured himself, insiders believe he was headed for a reunion with a starting group that began 13 playoff games the season before. But because of injuries and Ham’s preferences, that five didn’t start a single game together during the 2023-24 season.

Without Vanderbilt, Ham committed to a new path, with Hachimura, Russell and Reaves all starting — the Lakers finally landing on a starting five that had roots in last season’s playoff run.

By then, Russell had emerged as the Lakers’ most consistent third option alongside James and Davis, staring down weeks of trade rumors to set a team record for three-pointers in a season.

That group reenergized the Lakers’ season, the team going 22-10 after inserting Hachimura into the starting five.

“With my craft and my talent on the floor, I’ve always felt like I was capable of doing things,” Russell said after a game-winner against Milwaukee. “Getting hot makes it a little more exciting throughout a game. Off the floor, obviously, you know what I’ve been through. Public humiliation has done nothing but molded me into the killer that ya’ll see today. And, um, I never lack confidence. I never fear confrontation. I want all the smoke.”

While the team surged and ended the regular season 12 games over .500, some within the team and organization often wondered how much better the record would’ve been had the Lakers made those lineup changes sooner.

The Lakers now enter the offseason unsure of what they were and what they can be — and, in the end, that’s probably what you’re in for with a team in their position.

With James still able to perform and earn maximum money, there is no time for patience and no prioritization for development. Never has a player been more “win now” than James at this stage.

After a quiet trade deadline, those with knowledge of the Lakers situation who were not authorized to speak publicly regularly discussed the flexibility to potentially trade three first-round picks this offseason in an effort to add a player who would provide a bigger impact. Atlanta guards Dejounte Murray and Trae Young will certainly be discussed. Other players unhappy with their situations also could be available.

The Lakers could unbundle those picks and use them in multiple transactions to try to improve their supporting cast.

James’ presence certainly will play a major role in how they operate, as will that of Davis, whom the team signed to a long-term extension before this season.

As the organization tries to make sense of the season it just had, it will have to wrestle with a first-round loss in which the Lakers led at halftime in all five games. It’ll have to deal with the knowledge that the Lakers led for more minutes than they trailed, that the smallest mistakes had the biggest impact.

In a lot of ways, the end was a lot like that shot in Minnesota.

The Lakers were so close, one could really feel it. Yet close for this team at this moment isn’t anywhere near good enough.

And it won’t take much of a review to reach that conclusion.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top