This Isn’t Who the Lakers Are Supposed to Be. Right?

LOS ANGELES — LeBron James fidgeted as he answered questions after a second consecutive frustrating Lakers loss in which he thought the referees had missed a potential game-altering foul call.

He was terse and dismissed a question about scoring his 38,000th career point in the N.B.A., something only he and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have done. He was asked if he thought much about what the Lakers’ many losses in recent seasons meant to the franchise.

“No,” James said. Then he turned and sped out of the locker room, into a rainy Los Angeles night.

The gloom outside reflected the mood in the building.

For decades, the Lakers defined themselves as one of the N.B.A.’s glamour franchises — a place the biggest stars went to play, win championships and achieve basketball immortality. Making the playoffs was an expectation, not an accomplishment.

Then 10 years ago, two seismic events shook the franchise. On Feb. 18, 2013, Jerry Buss, who bought and revitalized the Lakers in 1979, died at age 80, leaving the franchise to a trust controlled by his six children, some of whom would wrestle for control of the team. Less than two months later, as he tried to drag the Lakers into the playoffs, Kobe Bryant tore an Achilles’ tendon, the first in a string of injuries that would spell the end of his 20-year career.

Since then, the Lakers have gone through several discordant phases, from Bryant’s return and retirement to chaos in the executive ranks to a championship in 2020 that seemed proof of purple-and-gold exceptionalism, no matter the obstacles.

But new obstacles have the Lakers once again facing the question of whether the excellence they spent decades building can return. For the second year in a row, James, 38, is having to produce herculean efforts to try to pull his injury-plagued team out of the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

LeBron James is averaging nearly 30 points a game at the age of 38 as he tries to power the injured and struggling Lakers to the playoffs.Credit…Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

“We’re going to figure this thing out,” said Lakers Coach Darvin Ham, the team’s fifth in the past 10 years. “We’ll definitely figure this thing out.”

‘Kobe realized that he could not win’

If success is measured by championships, the Lakers have still been one of the top teams in the N.B.A. during the past decade. They are one of the six teams to have won championships since the 2012-13 season.

Broadening the measure to playoff or regular-season success, the Lakers become less impressive. With only two playoff appearances since the 2012-13 season, the Lakers are in the bottom third of the league. Only two teams have been to the playoffs fewer times in that span — the Knicks (once) and the Sacramento Kings (none).

By contrast, between 1960-61, the team’s first season in Los Angeles after moving from Minnesota, and 2012-13, the Lakers had missed the playoffs just four times.

Frank Vogel coached the Lakers to their only two recent playoff appearances, guiding them to the championship in 2020 then a first-round loss in 2021. The Lakers fired him in April after they missed the playoffs.

Even though injuries and roster construction played major roles in the Lakers’ struggles in the 2021-22 season, Vogel became a casualty of heightened expectations with James on board. James’s arrival as a free agent in July 2018 marked the first time since Bryant retired two years earlier that the Lakers had a transcendent star.

Bryant had spent his whole career with the Lakers and won five championships. So even after his Achilles’ tendon injury, the Lakers rewarded him with a two-year contract extension worth $48.5 million, giving him the highest salary in the league at the time. They were confident that he deserved it no matter what happened next.

To announce Bryant’s return from injury in late 2013, the Lakers created a video with dramatic music and an image of his jersey being battered by weather until a lightning bolt finally tore it. The video closes with the jersey having been mended by unseen means and with the words: “The Legend Continues.”

Bryant returned for six games in December, then fractured his knee and missed the rest of the 2013-14 season as the Lakers won just 27 games. He missed most of the next season as the team won only 21 games.

“At some point, I think it’s obvious to everyone that Kobe realized that he could not win,” said Gary Vitti, who was the Lakers’ head athletic trainer for decades until Bryant retired. “And once he realized he couldn’t win, then a lot of the stress and the pressure sort of came off him and he really started having fun and being a lot happier around the game and his teammates.”

Kobe Bryant, who died in 2020, spent his entire 20-year career with the Lakers, though the final few seasons were rough. He scored 60 points in his final game in April 2016.Credit…Harry How/Getty Images

Opposing fans feted him everywhere he went. They cheered the first shot he made, even if it took him a while to get there. Coach Byron Scott, a former Lakers guard, led the team during Bryant’s loss-filled farewell tour, a franchise-low 17-win season.

“Losing — it’s horrible,” Vitti said. “But if you put it all in the context, if you’re Kobe, you know, basically Kobe could do whatever he wanted out there. Byron took over and kind of fell on his sword for the team. He said, let’s send Kobe out the way he wants to go.”

Said Metta Sandiford-Artest, who played for the Lakers on their 2010 championship team and again from 2015-17: “At that point, you just wanted to make it comfortable for Kobe. That’s it. Nothing else really matters at that point.” He added: “He deserved it.”

‘Pieces for the future’

All the losing gave the Lakers enviable draft positioning.

With picks earned by their records in the final few years of Bryant’s career, the Lakers drafted or acquired several promising young players, like Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance Jr., Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac.

Randle, Clarkson, Russell and Nance have said they learned from Bryant’s example. But his star power was such that they had to wait until he retired in April 2016 for the franchise to focus on their development.

“It felt like a career-beginning training camp because it definitely was not the pieces at the time you needed to win,” Sandiford-Artest said. “There was more, you know, pieces for the future.”

Those players would not be part of their future, except as trade chips to build the championship roster.

In the gap between Bryant and James, Jeanie Buss, the controlling owner, overhauled the front office and thwarted a coup attempt by her older brothers as the team’s losses — and external criticism — mounted.

In the summer of 2017, the Lakers signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who is represented by James’s agent and close friend, Rich Paul. That gave Paul an inside look at the organization a year before James became a free agent.

Paul knew the situation wasn’t perfect, but few teams are. He advised James that signing with the Lakers could work, in part out of trust in Buss. James chose the Lakers and suddenly the drama of the past few seasons didn’t seem to matter.

After missing the playoffs in James’s first season, when he dealt with a groin injury, the Lakers tried again. Magic Johnson, whom Buss had hired to run basketball operations and who had helped to recruit James, abruptly stepped down before the last game of the 2018-19 season. They traded several young players and draft picks to the New Orleans Pelicans for another Paul client: Anthony Davis. Rob Pelinka, the team’s vice president of basketball operations, said he consulted with James and Davis as he built the rest of the roster.

The two stars were electrifying together. The rest of the team fit perfectly and charged through the coronavirus pandemic-interrupted season. When Bryant died suddenly in a helicopter crash in January 2020, James became the public face of the organization’s grief.

Months later, James led the Lakers to the franchise’s 17th championship. Buss felt vindicated against those who had questioned her leadership.

Jeanie Buss, the Lakers’ controlling owner, has faced criticism as the team has struggled. She oversaw the franchise’s 17th championship run, in 2020.Credit…Tracy Nguyen for The New York Times

Onstage as the team celebrated the victory, James enveloped Buss in a long embrace. He told her they had accomplished what they set out to do.

“I think the hug for that long a time was to really let it soak in,” Buss told the Los Angeles Times at the time. “He’s won several championships now, and he knows that those moments are to be cherished and to be recognized.”

But it was only one championship. They would soon tumble from their pedestal.

‘Things are going to get right’

This season is Ham’s first season with the Lakers, and it began disastrously.

The team lost its first five games, and 10 of its first 12. Ham benched Russell Westbrook in October after three starts. Westbrook had struggled in his first season in Los Angeles last year.

James has been a bright spot. In his 20th season, he has been playing like he is still in his 20s. He’s had trouble enjoying the chase for Abdul-Jabbar’s career scoring record as losses and injuries have piled up this season.

Ham has remained optimistic.

“I get disappointed, but I don’t get discouraged or down on myself or the team,” he said in an interview. “Yeah, there’s moments in games we should have won, or different moments we should have played better, but at the end of the day working in the N.B.A. for one of the most, if not the most storied franchise, having a lot of great people I get to work with, great people I’m working for. It’s been fun.”

The Lakers lack depth, but there is evidence lately that, with the right additions, they can contend for a championship if they have Davis, who had been playing like a candidate for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award before his foot injury in mid-December. The Lakers went on a five-game winning streak starting Dec. 30 and recently they nearly beat two contenders — the Mavericks and the 76ers.

Lakers guard Russell Westbrook, left, has had a rocky tenure in Los Angeles, but has found success coming off the bench this year. Coach Darvin Ham, right, pulled Westbrook from the starting lineup after three games.Credit…Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The trading deadline is Feb. 9, giving the Lakers until then to make a major move to get back on the championship track. But all of the trades of the last few years, particularly those for Davis and Westbrook, have left them with little flexibility and salary-cap space. They can’t trade any of their first-round picks until the 2027 selection, and have been reluctant to lose more draft assets.

Ham said he has felt support from Pelinka and Buss, who signed Pelinka to a multiyear extension last year despite the team’s struggles. After a five-game road trip from Christmas to Jan. 2, Ham and Pelinka went to Buss’s office.

“She gave me a big hug and told me: ‘Hang in there, you’re doing a phenomenal job and things are going to get right. We’re going to start winning consistently, but Darvin, we’re totally happy with what you’re doing and you and your staff are doing an excellent job,’” Ham said. “It was cool. It was really thoughtful.”

Ham said the mood when he sees both Buss and Pelinka is light and full of smiles.

“It’s not like a lack of an awareness, but just a gratefulness, a thankfulness to be in this together,” Ham said.

He is being afforded patience, at least for now.

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