There’s a palpable sadness within Laker nation and that’s understandable.
The Los Angeles Lakers just got swept by the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals, with the celebrations in the Crypto.com Arena only adding salt to their wounds.
Game 4 initially saw the Lakers take control in the first half, with LeBron James’ all-out effort (a postseason-best 31 points through two quarters) and a 15-point lead for Los Angeles at halftime. Unfortunately, the Nuggets wouldn’t relent, with Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Aaron Gordon bringing Denver back into the game.
Gordon, in particular, was instrumental in this particular contest, as he made some of the key defensive stops that allowed the Nuggets to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
It was a quick end to a postseason that saw Los Angeles take down the second-seed Memphis Grizzlies and the defending champion Golden State Warriors in six games each. Yet prior to that they exceeded everyone’s expectations.
Starting the regular season at 2-10, pretty much everyone outside the Lakers organization and Laker nation counted them out. The roster didn’t seem right and played out of sorts, leading many to wonder if Los Angeles will miss the playoffs for the third time in five years.
With his seat getting warmer with each loss, Lakers general manager and vice-president for basketball operations Rob Pelinka pulled off a slew of trades that changed the fortunes of the squad, seemingly for the better. While Los Angeles was still built around LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the likes of Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt, and the returning D’Angelo Russel figured in prominent roles, with the Lakers making a run at the play-in tournament and into the Western Conference Finals.
As their offseason begins, Los Angeles has some things they must address with regard to their immediate and long-term future, some of which were revealed during the series against Denver.
Consistency, particularly on offense, was evident during the dry spells the Lakers had. Shooting looked to be a non-issue prior to the Nuggets series, but when defenses were more attuned to cover shooters, the cracks revealed themselves again. In fact, James and Dennis Schroder combined for seven of Los Angeles’ eight 3-pointers in Game 4, with the rest of the team managing to convert on just one of their seven attempts.
Small-ball may loom large in recent years, but there has been a shift to bigger lineups, particularly with big men who have the skills to compensate for quicker and smaller opponents. For much of the season, the Lakers reverted to lineups with Davis at center, with the injury to Mo Bamba, the emergence Vanderbilt, and the success the changes brought making it a more permanent change. It may have also worked during the first few rounds of the postseason, but Denver’s vaunted frontline of Jokic and Gordon pretty much negated it. Safe to say that Los Angeles could have used their 2020 center rotation of Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee to support Davis in the paint.
Finally, LeBron-centric rosters have always subscribed to going all-in, but given James’ recent performances, mortgaging your future is now more of a risk. Yes, the four-time NBA MVP was still able to produce at a high level at 38 years old, but his disappearances have hurt the Lakers in recent games. James only had nine points in the second half, managing to score only three points in the final quarter. Moreover, his turnovers killed Los Angeles’ chances and it may be time to give him even more help, or perhaps someone more consistent.
There’s also the burning question heading into the offseason as to whether or not James will call it quits. He was obviously disappointed with the sweep and was non-committal to his future with the franchise in his postgame interview.
He’s still got $97 million left on his contract for the next couple of years, but at this point the money is no longer as motivation considering how much he’s made off the court through his endorsements and business interests. He still dreams of playing with his sons, but it really looked like the grind of an NBA season is starting to become difficult for quite possibly the greatest pure athlete that the league has ever seen.
The Lakers have the two draft picks in the 2023 NBA Draft and it would be interesting to see what they do with their 17th overall pick. We know that the Lakers will likely find another gem in the second round or among the undrafted free agents, but the lack of depth in this year’s draft class beyond the first few picks could lead to some maneuvering on Pelinka’s end.
For a franchise with a winning tradition like that of the Los Angeles Lakers, the somber feeling of exiting the playoffs at this stage is unsurprising. However, looking at the bigger picture and considering what they went through this entire season, they went through hell and back to be within reach of another NBA Finals appearance. What remains to be seen is how they use the lessons from this campaign moving forward.