The Lakers’ defense — which bounced between respectable and good the first half of the season — has come apart of late, and it’s the main reason it’s easy to see the Lakers missing the playoffs. They are bottom 10 in the league defensively over their last 10 games. There are multiple reasons and multiple people to blame for this. The roster was not built with players who would provide consistent rim protection (JaVale McGee does it for stretches but can be exposed, and Tyson Chandler is running on fumes). There is not a great defensive identity from coach Luke Walton that the team has bought into. The Lakers miss Lonzo Ball, who is out with a bone bruise in his ankle (Rajon Rondo gets torched at the point of attack a lot). The list goes on.
LeBron James has been part of the problem as well — he has been slow to get back in transition, he has not rotated out to shooters, and at points he seems to stand around off the ball. He is capable, for a stretch, of dialing up great defense, but it’s not something he does for the entire game. Which is exactly what was happening in Cleveland, but it got overlooked because the rest of that roster, in the East, was still good enough to be a threat to make the Finals (which they did). In the West, these Lakers are not even a playoff team.
Which has led to a lot of criticism from fans, media and others about LeBron’s defense. He pushed back on that speaking to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports — LeBron said go ahead and target him.
“I mean, every team has the right if they want to single me out defensively. Come on with it,” James told Yahoo Sports. “Hey, listen, come on with it. Every team has the right to be like, ‘Oh, ’Bron’s over there.’ Hey, just come on with it. … We’ll see what happens.”
As for the noise around the Lakers and the level of criticism he has faced this season.
“I really don’t care. Criticism doesn’t bother me…”
“So if [teams are] switching out on me with a guard and me having to try to get a stop, I mean, guys, they’re going to score. These are NBA players. I just try to make it tough on them. I tried to make it tough on Julius [Randle] all night, and obviously he was a monster [with a game-high 35 points], but I tried to make it tough on Jrue as well. To be able to get that stop for our team and then be able to make that shot for our team, that’s motivating for me. That’s all that matters to me.”
The Lakers problems — which are not solved with a win at home against a stumbling Pelicans team sitting Anthony Davis in the fourth — are multiple.
However, they all go back to roster construction. The Lakers were not going to give out multiple-year contracts to preserve cap space for this summer, so they got veterans willing to settle for one-year deals. Guys without better options. Sure, some players want to suit up with LeBron in Los Angeles, but not more than they want to get paid. Not on a Laker team that clearly was not ready to contend yet. The Lakers got what they paid for.
We all expected LeBron to still be able to lift this team into the playoffs.
Maybe if he’d stayed healthy all 82 games he could have, but he missed time with a groin injury and this roster simply isn’t good enough to lift him up, too. Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and the young guys are doing their part, but the “preserve the cap space” veterans just aren’t that good.
Which means if the Lakers don’t do something impressive with that cap space next summer the real drama will start.