How the Lakers wasted Year 1 of LeBron
Editor's note: This story was originally published on March 29 and has been updated to reflect Magic Johnson stepping down as Lakers president.
The Los Angeles Lakers will miss the playoffs for a sixth consecutive year. LeBron James' season will end in April for the first time since 2004-05, his second year in the NBA, snapping personal streaks of 13 straight postseason appearances and eight straight NBA Finals berths. Magic Johnson, after two seasons as Lakers team president, unexpectedly announced Tuesday night that he is stepping down. Luke Walton is heavily rumored to be out as head coach at season's end.
For the 2018-19 Lakers, there is plenty of blame to go around. There is rarely a single moment that derails a team's entire season. From injuries, to underwhelming player production, to questionable management decisions, the most anticipated season in L.A. in years morphed into a cautionary tale that could be retold around the league for decades. This is how the Lakers got here.
IN THE SUMMER of 2017, long before LeBron slipped on a purple and gold uniform and before Lance Stephenson was the star of "Air Band Cam" on the Jumbotron at Staples Center, Paul George was traded from the Indiana Pacers to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
George, a Southern California native who long stated his desire to return to play near his Palmdale home, was perceived to be a rental player on an expiring contract. Just taking a pit stop with the Thunder before joining the lineage of Lakers greats, many around the league assumed.
When he veered from that course and re-signed with Oklahoma City in the summer of 2018, league sources told ESPN it was always more of what the Thunder did right than what the Lakers did wrong. The Thunder traded for him, after all, taking a chance with no promises of a long-term commitment. Then they worked to make him feel at home, selling a partnership with Russell Westbrook.
George never gave the Lakers an opportunity to shoot their shot. But he had a wealth of information available to him about the inner workings of the Lakers without ever hearing a word from Magic Johnson. For example, George played in Oklahoma City with Corey Brewer in the second half of the 2017-18 season, after Brewer was waived by L.A. in February. Brewer divulged his Lakers experience to George, sources said.
And George's agent, Aaron Mintz of CAA, was intimately familiar with the organization. Before Rich Paul of Klutch Sports garnered attention representing two clients on the Lakers -- LeBron and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope -- Mintz represented two-fifths of the starting lineup, D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle. (Mintz and Paul aren't alone with their seeming outsized influence; Jeff Schwartz of Excel Sports Management currently advises both Brandon Ingram and Tyson Chandler, and Joe Branch of Roc Nation Sports reps Moe Wagner and Josh Hart.)
Russell, taken with the No. 2 pick in 2015, and Randle, the No. 7 pick in 2014, were drafted by the previous front-office regime, general manager Mitch Kupchak and vice president Jim Buss.
Once Johnson and Rob Pelinka took over in February 2017, their vision was simple: Develop the young talent they already had, but also clear cap space to pursue free agents like James, who they believed could fast-track the franchise's path back to relevance.
Their first task: offloading Timofey Mozgov, signed to a four-year, $64 million deal just seven months prior by Kupchak and Buss in their final, fatal free agency in charge of the team. Johnson and Pelinka found a taker in Brooklyn, sending Russell and Mozgov east for Brook Lopez and the No. 27 pick in the 2017 draft.
Giving up on Russell -- a pace-and-space guard suited for the modern NBA -- after just two seasons was a risk, but L.A. got back a former All-Star in Lopez and a pick that turned into Kyle Kuzma. Plus, L.A. got out from under Mozgov's monstrosity of a deal.
But rather than leave well enough alone, Johnson couldn't help but take a swipe at Russell on the guard's way out the door.
"He has the talent to be an All-Star. We want to thank him for what he did for us. But what I needed was a leader," Johnson said days after the trade in June 2017. "I needed somebody also that can make the other players better and also [somebody] that players want to play with."
The following season, Randle -- Mintz's other client on the Lakers -- saw his role fluctuate, bouncing from starter to bench player, from playing big minutes to a much more limited role.
Only after pressure from fans and media mounted did the team stabilize Randle's role.
At least that's how it was perceived, stirring questions of just how strong the organization's backbone was if it could succumb to public scrutiny.
Four months later, when the Lakers' pursuit of James to fill the same forward slot Randle occupied had become widely known, the former Kentucky product again became an afterthought.
Even though the Lakers controlled Randle's rights as a restricted free agent, L.A. never made an offer to him, sources told ESPN. This despite coach Luke Walton and his staff's preference to keep Randle, as earlier reported by The Athletic and confirmed by ESPN.
Mintz eventually asked the Lakers to renounce Randle's rights and navigated his client to the New Orleans Pelicans, where he signed a two-year, $18 million contract with a player option on the second year. Randle was won over, sources said, by the fact that the Pelicans really wanted him -- which wasn't the feeling he got from the Lakers.
L.A. signed Rajon Rondo to a one-year, $9 million deal with money it theoretically could have offered to Randle. This after the Lakers agreed to a one-year, $12 million deal to re-sign Caldwell-Pope. Any offer to Randle that was below what Caldwell-Pope received was untenable, considering Randle was more productive the previous season. Especially so with Randle playing in all 82 games and Caldwell-Pope available for just 74 because of legal issues.
And so it was with that background that Paul George, who donned No. 24 when he arrived in the NBA because of his childhood affinity for Kobe Bryant, didn't even grant the Lakers a meeting.
He didn't waste anyone's time, throwing a party with Westbrook in Oklahoma City celebrating his new deal the minute free agency opened that Saturday night. The consequences of George's decision forced L.A. to roll over its cap flexibility in the hopes of landing another star in the summer of 2019 -- and ultimately wasting James' first year with the Lakers.
July 1, 2018: James agrees to a four-year, $153.3 million contract with the Lakers.
July 2, 2018: James embarks on a yacht vacation in Positano, Italy, off the Amalfi Coast, tipping off an atypical offseason with less basketball, skipping USA Basketball's training camp.
July 6, 2018: Caldwell-Pope signs a one-year, $12 million contract to re-up with the Lakers, and Rondo signs a one-year, $9 million contract to come to L.A.
July 8, 2018: Lopez leaves the Lakers and signs a one-year, $3.3 million contract with the Milwaukee Bucks. He later tells The Lowe Post Podcast he was "a little surprised" the Lakers didn't work harder to keep him because he "would have wanted to play there."
Aug. 5, 2018: Las Vegas opens the line on the Lakers' win total at 48.5, giving L.A. a spot in the Western Conference playoffs.
Sept. 20, 2018: Magic and Pelinka give a news conference four days before the Lakers hold media day. "As I was talking to Luke [along with Pelinka], we said don't worry about if we get out to a bad start," Johnson said.
IN THE SEASON opener, on the road against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Lakers seemingly couldn't hit a shot.
They were 7-for-30 from 3-point territory (23.3 percent), with Blazers bench player Nik Stauskas nearly matching that output on his own (he hit five of Portland's 13 makes from deep). The Blazers pulled away late to win 128-119.
The Lakers' home opener two nights later was far worse. The Lakers trailed the Houston Rockets heading into the fourth quarter when, halfway through the final frame, James Harden collided with a defending Ingram on a fast-break attempt. Ingram shoved Harden after a whistle, resulting in a technical foul.
Tempers flared. Rondo spat in Chris Paul's face. Paul, in turn, poked Rondo in the head. The two point guards exchanged punches, and then Ingram re-entered the melee, throwing a wild haymaker that didn't land.
A tight game against the Rockets turned into a 124-115 loss, with the Lakers shooting 1-for-9 from 3 in the fourth quarter and 8-for-32 overall (25 percent). L.A. was 0-2. Ingram was suspended four games for the altercation. Rondo was suspended three.
Through just two games, the two most pervasive issues the team would face all season had already emerged: a struggle to connect on 3-point shots and a struggle to keep key personnel on the floor.
The fact that Ball was still recovering from offseason surgery and James was rounding into shape only made the job harder. And with no Lopez or Bryant on the roster and early attempts to play Kuzma and Beasley at small-ball center unsuccessful, there was no choice but to rely on undrafted, 6-foot-9 rookie Johnathan Williams to play backup minutes behind McGee.
Through the first seven games, the Lakers tried 93 different lineups -- second most in the league -- as Walton scrambled to find something that worked.
And after a 2-5 start, Johnson called Walton into a meeting, expressing disappointment and demanding better results from his coach.
Johnson's preseason talk preaching patience to the fan base was just that: talk. The marching orders changed before L.A. had played a tenth of the season.
Oct. 29, 2018: The Lakers lose 124-120 on the road to the 2-4 Minnesota Timberwolves -- days after the Wolves lost by 30 points against Milwaukee -- as Jimmy Butler scored 32. James, after Walton changes his substitution pattern in the first quarter, appears listless.
Nov. 5, 2018: Magic dressing down Walton goes public.
Nov. 6, 2018: Chandler signs with the Lakers after being waived by a Phoenix Suns team helmed by general manager James Jones, LeBron's longtime teammate. Chandler fills the void at backup center, sending Williams back to the G League.
Nov. 14, 2018: Rondo fractures his right hand trying to stop a fall in a 126-117 victory against the Blazers. He misses the next 17 games.
Dec. 16, 2018: McGee misses the first of seven consecutive games due to a bout with pneumonia.
"That would be amazing," James told ESPN in the visitor's locker room at Barclays Center. "That would be amazing, like, duh. That would be incredible."
Even though the season had stabilized -- the Lakers went 18-9 in their previous 27 games coming into the Brooklyn game -- the conversation was a reminder of the big fish L.A. was hoping to reel in.
A source familiar with the three-hour meeting James had at his home with Johnson on the eve of his free-agency decision told ESPN that Davis' name never came up when the two discussed future plans. But when the Lakers signed Rondo, Stephenson, Beasley, et al. to one-year contracts after George stuck with the Thunder, the message was clear: L.A. was hell-bent on pairing LeBron with a max-level free agent in the summer of 2019 -- with the possibility to upgrade the roster via a trade even before that.
L.A., sources said, was one of several teams to inquire about Butler before the swingman was traded to Philadelphia, for instance.
One team source told ESPN that they didn't feel as though James fully engaged with the younger teammates prior to the trade deadline.
Of course, the age gap between James, 34, and players in their early 20s could have contributed to any perceived distance. In October, James said his 14- and 11-year-old sons, Bronny and Bryce, introduced him to a lot of the pop culture that his teammates listened to and watched.
In Miami, James played with two perennial All-Stars, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. In his second stint in Cleveland, he played with two All-Stars coming into their own, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. James' L.A. teammates, while rich in potential, didn't fit the same profile. Davis did.
James' discussion of Davis was met with calls of tampering by some general managers, citing a shared connection of the same agent, Rich Paul.
With Davis under contract until 2020, the only way LeBron would get the "incredible" experience of playing alongside him -- without waiting out his first two seasons as a Laker -- would be L.A. trading assets to bring The Brow to the South Bay.
James' endorsement would send shock waves through the Lakers' locker room.
"The only players whose play hasn't been affected by the trade talks are James and Rajon Rondo," a team source told ESPN.
Any player with visions of playing his professional basketball career out in sunny Los Angeles could only wait on circumstances outside of his control.
Dec. 25, 2018: James suffers a strained left groin against the Golden State Warriors. James misses 17 games over the next five weeks, making it the most significant injury of his 16-year career. The Lakers win 127-101.
Dec. 28, 2018: James arrives at Staples Center with a glass of red wine before the Lakers' 118-107 loss to the Clippers. Los Angeles goes 3-7 in its first 10 games without James.
Jan. 19, 2019: Ball, wearing Big Baller Brand sneakers, severely sprains his left ankle after colliding with the Rockets' James Ennis III in the third quarter and is carried off the court by his teammates. The Lakers blow a 21-point lead and lose 138-134 in overtime.
Jan. 22, 2019: On The Lowe Post podcast, Lakers owner Jeanie Buss urges her front office to resist the temptation to make drastic deals at the trade deadline just to fulfill the organization's goal of getting back to the postseason.
"I think that Magic has been patient, I think Rob Pelinka has done amazing things in terms of giving our roster flexibility and not taking a shortcut to try to just make the playoffs, only to lose in the first round," Buss says. "They see the picture and they're taking those steps. You have to be patient because things can't change overnight. Although, in two years, I find it very remarkable where we are. I think they've exceeded my expectations in turning the program around and they're not going to take a shortcut to try to get a quick fix just to try to make the playoffs and shortchange any of our assets."
Jan. 28, 2019: Davis publicly requests a trade from the Pelicans. Like several teams around the league, the Lakers prepare a trade package to offer.
Feb. 2, 2019: Walton calls out several players for their selfish approach after a 115-101 loss to the Warriors.
Feb. 5, 2019: In the midst of an embarrassing 42-point loss to the Pacers, one of the indelible images of the season emerges: James sitting at the end of the bench, alone, with several empty seats between him and his next-closest teammate. James typically sits at the end of the bench, but with Indiana fans pelting "LeBron's gonna trade you!" chants at Lakers teammates, the perception is damning.
WITHOUT A DOUBT, Luke Walton's time as an assistant coach with the Warriors was an unabashed success -- he won a title in 2015 and guided them to a 39-4 record as interim head coach the following season.
And even if he couldn't take either of the Splash Bros. with him down the coast to Los Angeles, Walton could try to replicate small elements of Golden State's enviable team culture.
His first attempt? Recreating Steve Kerr's competition board, which was used in practice to track individual victories.
"It could be anything," Lakers assistant coach Clay Moser -- the man tasked with adding up the daily tallies for the board -- explained when asked how the scoring works. "It could be in a scrimmage. It could be in a shooting competition. It could be if a guy gets an answer to a question correctly. Like, we'll ask them, 'Hey what's [Player X's] weakness,' and if they answer correctly, we might give them a win."
It served as a great equalizer for the group. Even if a decorated player like LeBron came into the season with All-Star appearances, MVPs and championships, none of those credits earned him extra tallies in practice. And vice versa, even if a player had yet to accomplish anything of consequence in the league, he could stand out in practice. To paraphrase Rasheed Wallace, board don't lie.
"When we walk past it and see what the scores are looking like and who is ahead, it hypes us up for next game," Caldwell-Pope said. "Like, 'I'm going to try to get this many deflections or steals.' Whatever it takes."
For second-year center Ivica Zubac, who received 20 DNPs in the Lakers' first 27 games this season, the leaderboard became his lifeline.
"It means a lot," Zubac said in December. "People can't see me playing because I'm not in the rotation. So I know I'm doing a good job when I see myself up on the board and I'm in second place. I know I'm doing something right and it means a lot for my confidence."
When Zubac finally got meaningful minutes, he averaged 17.7 points and 8.7 rebounds, including an 18-point, 11-board effort on Christmas Day.
Zubac -- drafted as a raw 7-1, 240-pound center in the second round in 2016 -- had turned himself into a viable prospect under Walton.
None of those things happened.
Giving up Zubac to add an impactful player to the roster would have been a necessary cost. Trading a promising player to free Beasley's spot -- who the Lakers could've simply cut -- for Muscala, who shot 20.8 percent from 3 in his first 11 games with L.A., was a self-inflicted wound.
Shortly after the trade deadline, Clippers consultant Jerry West -- who spent more than 40 years with the Lakers as a player, coach and executive -- got together for dinner with old friends who also had former Laker ties, sources said. He couldn't believe how Zubac fell into his lap. The Clippers, sources said, never even called the Lakers to inquire about Zubac. The Lakers made the offer and the Clippers gladly accepted.
Sources said those at the dinner table shared a hearty laugh at the Lakers' expense.
"I almost look at Bullock and Muscala, my hope is, much like [Julian] Edelman was," Pelinka says, referencing the New England Patriots' wideout who overcame an early-season suspension to go on to win Super Bowl MVP. "It's just one player, but that can have such a big impact on overall chemistry and I hope those two guys can come in and have that impact."
Feb. 9, 2019: Attending a Michigan State game, Johnson tells the media he plans to join the Lakers in Philadelphia to help them cope with the fallout of the trade deadline. "I'm going to hug 'em and tell them that we got to come together and our goal is still in reach, which is to make the playoffs."
Feb. 10, 2019: Before the game in Philadelphia, Johnson tells the media to stop treating the players like "babies." He also says Ben Simmons requested a workout, but Sixers GM Elton Brand said no. The Lakers lose 143-120, whatever momentum built up from Rondo's winner at the buzzer in Boston the game before promptly ends.
IN THE ILL-FATED 2012-13 season, Memphis, Tennessee, was where all of the Lakers' pent-up dysfunction spilled out.
Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash & Co. aired their grievances at a morning shootaround, leaving Howard in near tears in the locker room, according to sources. Howard had to be coaxed out to join the team on the court after everyone had said their piece.
On an off day in Memphis following a 128-115 loss to an Anthony Davis-less Pelicans team on Feb. 23, the LeBron James-led Lakers had their own air-it-out session. Rondo organized the players-only meeting to find "a better understanding of one another," a team source told ESPN.
The timing was prompted by James, who aired his grievances to the media one night earlier, openly questioning his teammates' experience and readiness to meet the challenge of making the playoffs. "How many know what's at stake if you've never been there?" James asked, later declaring that he never has been and never will be accustomed to losing. The fact that Davis' home arena was the venue for James' venting only made his words come off stronger, as Davis was the player the Lakers made a run at.
The meeting in Memphis was a retort of sorts. In what became an open forum, several players spoke up. Players focused on James' inconsistent body language throughout the year. The four-time MVP copped to the critique, telling his teammates that, in essence, cutting out behavior like slumped shoulders and sideways glances has been something he has tried to work on his entire career.
The next night, James seemed to take the criticism to heart, putting his arms around guys during huddles, looking engaged during timeouts, and being vocal on defense -- but the Lakers still lost, 110-105, to a Grizzlies team that had lost 17 of their previous 20 games.
"Just because [the meeting] was positive doesn't mean we're going to win 25 games in a row," a team source told ESPN.
After the Memphis game, the Lakers continued to crumble, going 2-10 over their next 12 games.
March 2, 2019: At the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference in Boston, Jeanie Buss lambasts the media's coverage of the Lakers' pursuit of Davis.
"There was a lot of hype and things written about a potential trade leading into the trade deadline -- all of it false," Buss says. During a different panel discussion, Buss also says, in part, "The biggest challenge for [us is] the 'fake news' about how we were supposedly trading our entire roster for a certain player, which is completely not true. But those stories leak out and it hurt our young players. It wasn't fair." Her comments are made less than a month after Magic Johnson publicly acknowledged the trade talks with the Pelicans and said New Orleans was negotiating in bad faith.
March 2, 2019: The Lakers lose 118-109 to the Phoenix Suns, and LeBron adds to the season's blooper reel, throwing an inbounds pass off the back of the backboard, resulting in a turnover. "That was just silly on my part," James said. "... That was just stupidity on my part."
March 6, 2019: Down 13 to the Denver Nuggets with just over two minutes to go, the Lakers rolled the inbound pass up the court. James lets the ball roll past half court, all the way to the 3-point line before trying to gather it. Denver's Paul Millsap makes a stab at the ball, causing James to knock the ball out of bounds. In the final minutes of the game, Rondo checks out of the game and plants himself in a courtside seat, away from the bench. Rondo has done this before, but analyst Mark Jackson rips him during the broadcast, "There's no excuse for that."
March 8, 2019: The Lakers gather at their El Segundo, California, training center for team photo day. Illustrating the disarray of the season, several members of the coaching staff wear mismatched polo shirts to the shoot -- a detail that is overlooked after the team parted with longtime equipment manager Carlos Maples earlier in the season.
March 9, 2019: On the same day the Lakers announce Ingram will miss the remainder of the season with a deep venous thrombosis in his right shoulder, it is reported that Ball's ankle sprain and ensuing bone bruise will also end his season. Ingram played in just 52 games, and Ball played in 47. His rookie season was cut to 52 games because of a knee injury. LeBron, Ingram, Ball and Kuzma combine to play just 23 games together. L.A. goes 15-8 in those games.
March 17, 2019: L.A. blows an 11-point lead with 3:44 remaining in the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mario Hezonja blocks LeBron's potential game-winning attempt in the final seconds. LeBron goes 4-for-15 from the field in the fourth -- the 11 missed shots representing the most he has ever missed in a quarter.
March 22, 2019: The Nets officially eliminate the Lakers from playoff contention. Former No. 2 Lakers pick D'Angelo Russell has 21 points.
March 28, 2019: Brook Lopez goes 2-for-5 from 3, bringing his season total to 181 made 3-pointers. Caldwell-Pope leads the Lakers with the most made 3-pointers in the 2018-19 season with 127 made.
DURING A MORNING shootaround on the Lakers' final extended road trip of the season, James stood on the baseline in Milwaukee and saw teammates get up shots around the perimeter. Some went in, some didn't. Typical shootaround stuff. In a discussion with ESPN, James mulls over how many missed shots L.A. had this season and how things could have been different had more of those 3s fallen.
Those misses on the Lakers' opening night at the Moda Center never seemed to stop -- the Lakers ranked last in the league at making wide-open 3s, defined as the closest defender being more than 6 feet away, as the final couple weeks of the season approached.
For the first time in years, James wasn't surrounded by elite-level shooters. And for the first time in years, his team wasn't going to be playing in the postseason.
What did James think of the Lakers' grand experiment? How did he view the idea of prioritizing playmaking over shooting.
"That experiment?" James said of the roster construction for his first season in L.A.
James stared out onto the court for a moment, turned his attention back to the conversation, pursed his lips and stuck out his tongue as he trumpeted air out of his mouth, making a raspberry sound.