Dear Lakers Fans: Stop Kidding Yourselves

I’ve long joked that Los Angeles Lakers fans are like those annoying frat kids in your lecture with a “Reagan-Bush ’84” sticker on his laptop: they want to support and feel good about the idyllic and romanticized view of that thing, rather than experiencing the vulnerability and ups and downs of being an actual supporter of that thing.

As soft and complacent as Lakers fans are, the signing of LeBron James was an opportunity for Lakers fans to change my mind about them: to commit themselves to their team trying to win right here and right now instead of just trying to ride the coat-tails of bygone days. We are just about wrapping up the first year of the LeBron James experience in LA, and I’m here to deliver a message to Lakers fandom:

You got played. Hard. You got played more than Tom Thibodeau plays his two-way wings.

LeBron did not come to your city to deliver you a championship. He didn’t come to Los Angeles to win basketball. That’s not to say he doesn’t want to win, but winning is not what he came there to do. How do I know? I’m going to let you in on a little secret: if he wanted to win, he wouldn’t have gone to the Lakers.

The front office is a joke. They’ve spent on top draft picks year after year with only mild returns, and giving up the only actually valuable player they drafted to get off a bad contract which never should have happened in the first place. They let Brook Lopez, an ideal center for a LeBron team, in order to sign the bunch of washed-up goons they got this year. The only “accomplishment” this brass has is getting LeBron, who threw himself at them. The coach is unproven to say the least. His best accomplishment was a good couple months coaching the best regular season team ever. Wow, sure that one was tough. LeBron could have played with top talent whisperer Brett Brown, Brad Stevens, or an offensive mastermind like D’Antoni, but no, he wanted Luke Walton.

There were winning, proven teams with better situations in every respect that wanted him. I’m a Sixers, fan but you can’t accuse me of being selfish here: I didn’t want LeBron within 500 miles of Philadelphia. But the player who could literally pick and choose a franchise to make his own neglected teams like Boston, Houston, Philadelphia, San Antonio, and basically any other contender who would have been happy to do what they needed to do in order to make it work to sign him.

Instead, he chose LA for exactly the reason that Lakers fans love the Lakers: they’re perfectly happy to get caught up in being a celebrity instead of winning basketball games. Julian Edelman said it best: “LA is Hollywood, but Boston is a sports town.” It really is that simple. He went to LA because he wanted to just be famous. Winning would be great, but if he was producing Space Jam 2 and the Shop, he’ll be set.

Body language is pretty telling, right now.

And of course, the asterisk over this whole Lakers season is the 18 game absence without LeBron James due to an unprecedented injury. Prior to that, the Lakers were finally looking like a serious West playoff threat, but while he was out, that team cratered. He obviously wasn’t responsible for them losing all those games, but he also willingly put himself in a situation where their playoff life hung in the balance of Brandon Ingram’s night to night performance.

And while this team would be a likely playoff team in the East, he chose to go to the West. He knew what this was. He could have gone to the best teams in the East, where injuries wouldn’t change anything once they got into the playoffs healthy. But instead, he chose a bottom-feeder in the stacked West.

This is all of course with the tangent that obviously LeBron likes winning, and wants to do it. It’s just not what he came to LA to do. He would happily win where he would get all the praise and credit in the world, but now that they’re losing, he’s stat-padding while punting on defense all so he could avoid blame in the loss. Even if he puts up 25-10-10, leaving open shooters on a Memphis team in freefall might just lose you a game. Bricking two free throws against Phoenix might just lose you a game.

This isn’t news, either, LeBron has always taken credit and avoided blame. But at no point is he recognizing that maybe this teams lack of cohesion, roster construction, or all of the “distractions” he lements, were his own doing.

The sad reality is, if LeBron James wanted to be in a better situation than he is right now, he could have just stayed in Cleveland (as much of a joke that team has been). He would be in the East, he had the fanbase at his knees so he could half-ass the whole season and return in the playoffs like he did every year, and probably still end up in the Finals. The funny part is, I’m wondering who was misled more: The Lakers for thinking LeBron gave a shit about winning for them, or the Cavs for thinking he wanted to retire there while suspiciously never signing a long-term deal with them.

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Life Post-Trade Deadline: So Far, So Good

In possibly the most explosive game since the trade deadline last Thursday, the new look Philadelphia 76ers absolutely imposed their will upon the Lakers (boy does that feel good to say). Despite Kyle Kuzma’s 39 points, the Sixers won 143-120.

The Lakers, who are often touted as a strong defensive team, gave up 34 points in the 4th Quarter, and 33 minimum for each quarter.

LeBron James looked like he’s still working his way back in after the longest absence in his career.

Life with Tobias Harris has gone great thus far, he posted 22 points including 3 3-balls and on 9-14 from the field.

Embiid was the man of the night, with 37 points, 14 rebounds, and a steal. He posted his career high in points last season against the Lakers. The Lakers situation is dire at best, as Javale McGee still plays well within his limited minutes, and Tyson Chandler is lacking offensively when he takes over for McGee. As such, it’s not surprising that Embiid was able to beast on this Lakers squad.

One underrated aspect of this game was how well the Sixers shared and moved the ball. Butler had a good game with 15 points, as well as doing some great on ball defense on players like Brandon Ingram, who it seemed to be easy for Butler to force into errors or poor shot selection. Ingram had 19 points but was a -8 on BP/M.

JJ Redick had 15 points on only 3 3-point makes, which was that absolutely insane and-1 shot from nearly behind the backboard in the corner.

Ben Simmons struggled tonight, which isn’t all that surprising: he seemed a little bit passive and unsure immediately after the Butler trade, but found his rhythm again just before the Harris trade. However, Simmons was operating on no shortage of aggression this time. He took his very first pull up 3-pointer, which was an unlucky rattle away from going in. He also took many more shots from outside of the paint, and was intent on hitting turn-around jumpers out of the post. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t surprise me if Simmons looks a little uncertain in the near future, as this team clearly still has to figure out effective ways to share the ball with as many high-usage threats in their starting 5.

Simmons was a +6 on BP/M, despite having no double digits on the stat-line. He did, however, play some fantastic defense, including one impressive block down-low against LeBron James.

While wins over a strong Denver team and a LeBron led clown-fest feels good, the Sixers’ true test post-deadline comes Tuesday at home against Boston. They lost the first game of the season against Boston, and lost a close OT game against Boston Christmas Day, both of which were away. The Sixers are great at home, but Boston has historically been a bane for Philly. Although it’s important to note, this is not the same Philadelphia squad as was seen in either the first nor second meeting between the two. Boston is also in a shaky place culturally, after their crazy comeback lost to the Sixers-er, I mean the Clippers’ own Landry Shamet. Man, that will never stop hurting to say.

Losing to the Cavs? Lakers Need to Make a Move or Risk Running in Place

Since the 2016 Finals, LeBron-led teams have done one thing and one thing only: spun their tires. Despite making the finals every year, there was clear evidence that the Cavs hit the ceiling of what a LeBron-and-the-peanut-gallery team can achieve.

Last night, the Lakers lost to the now 9-35 Cleveland Cavaliers, who were riding an 11-game losing streak, and were on the road at the Staples Center, in pretty embarrassing fashion even though it was a 6-point game. The Lakers were, of course, short LeBron James whose absence due to a groin injury was extended at least until mid-January. The Cavs, however, were short both Kevin Love and Larry Nance Jr., both of whom are among the sole talents on this barren team.

This begs the question: Did LeBron leave the Cavaliers only to play with a team just as bad? Basically, yes, he did. Of course, this is complicated by the fact that it’s widely accepted that LeBron going to LA was significantly impacted by the size and profitability of the LA market, compared to Cleveland. However, the King’s absence has shown that the Lakers, without LeBron, would essentially be bottom-feeding in the West along with the Suns. To my best estimation, I’d say they would be lucky to break 32 or 33 wins.

So, if the Lakers want to make anything out of LeBron’s precious remaining healthy years (which are now jeopardized by the first major injury he’s sustained in years) then they need to make a move, and fast. There is no time to waste. First of all, they need to stop the bleeding during the remainder of LeBron’s sabbatical. Even if he comes back at full-strength, which is far from a given, then they will need to step it up to get themselves back into the playoff race. They are still barely above .500, but if you’re trying to stay in the top 8 bubble, you cannot and I mean cannot lose to the Cavaliers. There is a very, very reasonable chance that a team like the Jazz, Pelicans, or Timberwolves start knocking on the door of the 8th seed.

More importantly, LeBron is 34, and just sustained a pretty significant injury unlike what he’s seen in this stage of his career. They can’t wait until Anthony Davis is a free-agent to realize it’s go time. So, what can the Lakers do to get themselves an even competent supporting cast for LeBron?

First, the obvious move is trading for Anthony Davis. This, of course, implies that the Pelicans are interested in moving him, which is not likely with the current landscape. In fact, the Pelicans are more likely to be buyers than sellers in this trade market, but that’s a different story. Let’s assume that Davis requests a trade before the deadline. The Celtics, without trading Kyrie Irving, cannot trade for Anthony Davis. Now, if I’m Danny Ainge, there is not a single player that is safe in an Anthony Davis trade, but the important thing here is that Boston is unlikely to make a move until after this trade season.

Aside from his unbelievable talent, AD fills a lot of holes for the Lakers, specifically. Their defense in the paint is abysmal, and they lack a true starting-caliber center. McGee has been unreliable, Tyson Chandler is fine off the bench but is also old as dirt, so he’s not a guarantee going forward. Zubac is, like, fine if you’re a middling team. But are any of these guys going to take care of business against, say, recovered-Demarcus Cousins? Or more realistically, Rudy Gobert of AD himself? Doubtful.

Aside from his defensive strength and versatility, Davis is a do-it-all scorer who has positional flexibility to play with other centers or other power forwards. If you could somehow get the trade done without giving up Kyle Kuzma, which would be extremely difficult, there would be a lot of interesting rotations with him, Davis, and LeBron, not all at the same time, even. That would be an indisputable upgrade defensively and offensively, even if you lost some depth to make it happen.

If Magic could get the deal done by giving up Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, someone else of marginal value and a pick? I would do that, easily. Of course, if I’m New Orleans, I’d want Kuzma, and honestly there is little guarantee that Kuzma would mesh well with AD and LeBron, despite the fact that he’s the best performer of the moveable pieces.

The important thing about AD is that the Lakers cannot afford to wait until after this season to move for him, if they decide that’s what the move is. They will not win a bidding war with Boston. They simply won’t. They have more valuable assets, both present and future, and are arguably a more desirable destination in the Eastern Conference, and on a team where you aren’t playing second-fiddle to a balding 34-year-old, or watching Ingram, who’s playing like a mumble-rapper-Andrew-Wiggins, miss mid-range jumpers.

Another trade I’d be interested in as the Lakers front office is for Nikola Vucevic of the Orlando Magic. The Magic may still believe they can slide into a playoff spot, but any responsible front office will realize that losing in the first round won’t help you much, when next year will be nearly equally as wide open, and just coast for this season.

The smart move is to become sellers in this market, for Orlando. Vucevic is a potent scorer, and he’s on a pretty modest contract at about $12M, although he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. This trade, for say, KCP and a pick, or maybe any one of Hart, Ingram, or Ball, could pretty reasonably be balanced. KCP makes sense as their salaries are pretty balanced, and they both would be off the books after this year.

If Orlando could gain a pick or a player under contract for Vucevic, who might easily leave this year anyway, would be a score. Even if the Magic might make the playoffs, which is a stretch in and of itself, Vucevic probably isn’t a part of their long-term vision.

I went into further detail with those two scenarios than I originally intended, but the general idea is the more important aspect of this piece than the hypothetical trades themselves: the Lakers cannot sit this one out. With this injury as a potential turning point in LeBron’s career, there is absolutely no guarantee that they will have any more chances to win a title. The Warriors are the most vulnerable they’ve been, and with the potential to lose KD or Klay Thompson after this season, next year is really the last possible year before we’re talking about post-prime LeBron.

If they want to win a title, in the span of LeBron’s contract specifically, there really is no time like the present. There’s always a chance that this team finds it’s rhythm in the post-season, as LeBron always does, but none of the young guys on this roster have playoff experience, and many of them (Ball and Ingram specifically) have glaring, exploitable flaws akin to those that get exposed in the playoffs. Even assuming all of that, if the Lakers don’t do too hot into the end of the regular season, they may be playing a Golden State, Denver, Oklahoma City type team in the very first round.

I may be beating a dead horse here, but if this team wants to avoid the fate of the Cavaliers, they need to do more than spin their tires in the mud.

Editor’s Note: I do think that if the Lakers happen to make a significant move, they will in all likelihood try to move Ingram. This is mostly due to fit,    as Ingram is just the odd-man out. He’s too inefficient to play in a team with, hypothetically, LeBron        and AD. Kuzma is too valuable as a role player, and Lonzo is actually the ideal point-guard for a LeBron team, for all of his faults.