Following another embarrassing loss, this one to the Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James tweeted an hourglass emoji, his latest cryptic message for a team in turmoil in a career full of them.
— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 31, 2024
Noted LeBron whisperer Dave McMenamin of ESPN considered a few interpretations of the tweet, all of which boiled down to time running out on the opportunity to fix these Lakers before it's too late for James.
The Lakers were 15-10 on Dec. 13, fifth place in the West. The offense was bad, ranking 21st in net rating (112.1 points per 100 possessions), but the defense was good enough — seventh in net rating (111 points allowed per 100 possessions) — for us to believe another run to the conference finals was still a possibility. They are 9-15 since. Only tanking teams have been worse. Over the past seven weeks, the defense joined the offense in the NBA's bottom 10 (tied for 22nd in net rating, allowing 118.9 points per 100 possessions).
What shifted? Well, the players tried to get their coach fired or chastened or whatever they were attempting to do when "six sources with direct knowledge of the situation" told The Athletic "a deepening disconnect between Darvin Ham and the Lakers locker room" is "raising questions about the head coach’s standing."
The Lakers have given up 125 or more points in 10 of their 15 games since that story broke, allowing a league-worst 20 points per game off turnovers. They are somehow playing at the NBA's fastest pace and one of its slowest speeds, covering less ground on the court than any team but the Phoenix Suns, according to Second Spectrum. If you are looking for evidence of a team that quit on its coach, this is it.
And it won't get any easier. The Lakers have one of the NBA's toughest remaining schedules, including this week's tour through Boston (neither James nor Davis is healthy enough to face the rival Celtics on Thursday) and New York, another six-game road trip at the end of March and two games apiece against the West-leading Minnesota Timberwolves and defending champion Denver Nuggets.
The Lakers are unsuccessfully trying to package what few assets remain for help making the playoffs, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Just like last year, when they acquired Rui Hachimura, D'Angelo Russell, Jarred Vanderbilt and Malik Beasley before the deadline. Beasley is currently shooting 45.5% from 3-point range for the Milwaukee Bucks, and the others are among those being shopped for the next bout of hope.
Here is how that is going:
Hawks fans chanting “We don’t want you!” with D’Angelo Russell at the FT line pic.twitter.com/fdH7yysOP7
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) January 31, 2024
Hawks fans were chanting, "We don't want you," as Russell attempted free throws in Tuesday's 138-122 victory against the Lakers. This came in response to reports that the Lakers' brass is attempting to flip Russell as part of a trade for Atlanta's Dejounte Murray. And fans are right. What use is Russell to a team that found Murray to be a misfit? Maybe a third team — like, say, the Brooklyn Nets — would take Russell to facilitate a deal between Atlanta and Los Angeles. Or maybe the Hawks are not interested at all.
The Lakers have only their 2029 first-round draft pick to trade, along with some swaps and seconds, and Jalen Hood-Schifino, the No. 17 pick averaging 1.9 points per game on 23/9/64 shooting splits as a rookie.
That is not a ton in exchange for the best available player. The Lakers would prefer not to include Austin Reaves in a trade, just like I would prefer not to pay as much for groceries, but the market will dictate how much their best offer can return, whether it is Murray alone or multiple moves further along the margins.
Then what? The Lakers earn another play-in tournament berth? It has been four years since they won the championship in the bubble, where James and Anthony Davis were fresh from four months of rest.
This year's Lakers are plus-1.2 points per 100 meaningful possessions when James and Davis are on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass, equivalent to the Houston Rockets — with their two best players. Remove James from that equation, and the Lakers are minus-2.7 points per 100 non-garbage possessions, something like the Utah Jazz. And wouldn't you know, the West standings after what is becoming a pretty locked-in top eight:
9. Los Angeles Lakers (24-25)
10. Utah Jazz (24-25)
11. Houston Rockets (22-25)
If the Jazz or Rockets manage to land Murray or a high-level role player or two at the deadline, would you consider either team a championship contender? No. You wouldn't. You'd think they were second-round playoff fodder at best. The reason we like to think a reshuffled Lakers roster can still find a path to contention is because they have James and Davis, future Hall of Famers still putting up All-NBA numbers.
Back to their production with the same roster they took to the Western Conference finals. Here is where the ratings with James and Davis on the court would rank the Lakers' offense and defense in the last five years:
2019-20: Offense (1st) • Defense (1st)
2020-21: Offense (8th) • Defense (1st)
2021-22: Offense (25th) • Defense (13th)
2022-23: Offense (14th) • Defense (1st)
2023-24: Offense (15th) • Defense (16th)
What sticks out from those numbers, other than the fact that this season most closely resembles the 2021-22 campaign, when the Lakers won 33 games and failed to make the play-in tournament? They are no longer dialing up a league-leading defense at their best. A 39-year-old James cannot sustainably carry the necessary burden on both ends, the rotation is full of either offense-first (i.e., Russell) or defense-first (i.e., Jarred Vanderbilt) contributors, and their best two-way acquisition (Gabe Vincent) is injured.
In addition to Murray, the Lakers' shopping list includes Bruce Brown, Alex Caruso and Dorian Finney-Smith — two-way players who could help any roster — plus a slew of lower-end rotation players (Finney-Smith's Brooklyn Nets teammates Spencer Dinwiddie and Royce O'Neale are reportedly among them).
Their best trade package (excluding Reaves) could return one top target but not two, if, as Marc Stein reported, the Toronto Raptors' asking price for Brown is a first-round draft pick and a quality player. As ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski said, "Lakers fans and players and the organization probably have to temper their expectations on this trade deadline. ... Their best bet might be to wait. I know a lot of Laker fans don't want to hear that, but you look at the marketplace right now, there are so few difference-makers available."
How much more are you trusting the Lakers if their best-case scenario closing lineup is something like James, Davis, Reaves, Brown and a healthy Vincent? That is two All-Stars, a member of the 2024 Paris Olympics player pool and a pair of starters from the NBA Finalists last season. In theory, that is something.
It still relies on James and Davis to anchor a championship-caliber team on both ends, and we don't know if that's still possible. We think it might be, since lineups featuring James and Davis outscored opponents by 20.4 points per 100 possessions on their way to the in-season tournament crown, operating like a league-best outfit on both ends. Remember, though, that was seven games in November and December against the less-than-full-strength Phoenix Suns (twice), the Ja Morant-less Memphis Grizzlies, the injury-depleted Portland Trail Blazers and the relatively healthy Jazz, New Orleans Pelicans and Indiana Pacers.
The Lakers must sustain that for two months against the Western Conference playoff field. Their current road requires two must-win play-in tournament games and best-of-seven upsets of Minnesota, Denver and the Oklahoma City Thunder or L.A. Clippers, just to reach the NBA Finals, where the Celtics could await.
That James and Davis have combined to miss eight games feels like a minor miracle, considering they have averaged 30 absences between them over the previous three seasons. James is closing in on the most minutes in a career, and only six players have played more minutes than Davis this season. They are in a 33-game sprint to qualify for the play-in tournament, during which time they hope to incorporate multiple rotation players, and they need to raise their level of play against a murderer's row for another four rounds.
That would feel like too much if we hadn't seen James defy his doubters, including Father Time, so often.
Remember that hourglass emoji? What if, and this is less hyperbolic than it has ever been, time has run out for James and the Lakers? We have seen James exit four-year windows in Miami and Cleveland once each team expended every asset until there were none left to fix what was broken around him. The Lakers are on the precipice of reaching that point at this year's deadline, only James needs more help than ever before.
If it doesn't work, if he can't navigate that implausible road to an 11th Finals, what then? Package Reaves and the three first-round picks they will have available in June for the latest trip around a third star? Patch together another rotation of minimum-paid veterans? Become this year's Suns, another fringe contender?
First, James must choose between entering free agency or picking up his $51.4 million option to continue playing in L.A. If he is still chasing "the ghost" of Michael Jordan, that choice will require James to decide for the first time in his career whether he can still drive a championship bus or if it is time to hop aboard one.