Why the Lakers wasting LeBron’s sunset years sends a bad message to NBA superstars down the road

Peter Dewey
8 Min Read

Are the Los Angeles Lakers really going to waste the final few seasons of LeBron James’ career?

Somehow, James is still playing at an elite level, even though he’s 37 years old and about to turn 38 this season. Unfortunately, the Lakers have surrounded him with a team that isn’t built to win in today’s NBA, and the team has showcased that early in the 2022-23 season.

Following Sunday’s win against the Brooklyn Nets, the Lakers are just 3-10 on the season. Before that, they were on a five-game losing streak. With James out of the lineup on Friday, the Lakers squandered a late lead to the Sacramento Kings, losing 120-114.

It’s truly amazing how far this team has fallen since winning the NBA Finals in the 2019-20 season in the league’s Orlando, Fla. bubble. The Lakers have yet to win a playoff series since, and they are currently in danger of missing the postseason for the second consecutive season.

To make matters worse, the downfall has come with James playing some of his best basketball despite dealing with injuries.

This season, James is averaging 24.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game while shooting 45.7 percent from the field. The 18-time All-Star is following up a 2021-22 season in which he averaged 30.3 points per game, the second-best scoring average in a season in his career, yet the Lakers still missed the playoffs.

What more can Los Angeles ask of the four-time champion?

General manager Rob Pelinka and the Lakers organization as a whole are in some deep trouble. Not only have they found a way to mess up multiple seasons with James on the roster, but they are hurting themselves for the future as well.

The Lakers have failed to build a contender around LeBron James

The crazy part about the Lakers’ recent downfall is that it has come by making poor decision after poor decision following a championship run.

Sometimes, with teams that win titles, we see a franchise try to keep that same group together, even if some players end up being past their prime years, leading to the team ultimately failing.

This wasn’t the case with the Lakers. In fact, it was almost the opposite.

Since winning the title, the Lakers have gone through several different iterations of their roster, ranging from adding Dennis Schroder to the backcourt prior to the 2020-21 campaign to trading for Russell Westbrook prior to the 2021-22 season.

Over this stretch, Los Angeles has experimented with an extremely veteran roster (the 2021-22 season), and now it has transitioned to a younger roster that lacks any perimeter shooting this season.

The Lakers chose to move on from key contributors like Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and even Malik Monk only to build worse rosters than they had with those players on it.

The Westbrook move has been criticized endlessly, and for good reason, but it isn’t just one move that changed the course of the franchise’s trajectory under James.

That’s what has to make this frustrating for Lakers fans.

The blueprint for a successful team with James has been around for years. The Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers followed it, and as a result, James went to the NBA Finals in eight straight seasons.

Yes, L.A. needs other stars around the four-time champion, but it also needs shooting, and lots of it, to space the floor to allow him to attack and create. The team also needs strong defenders to allow James to pick his spots on that end of the floor since he’s expected to do so much in all facets of the game.

And yet, the Lakers have surrounded James with rosters that lack shooting, have underwhelming role players and feature a star like Westbrook who doesn’t complement James’ game at all.

Injuries to James and Anthony Davis haven’t helped, but the Lakers have built such a poor roster around them that the team can’t sustain success without both players in the lineup.

That’s a major red flag, and the entire situation has to raise a red flag to players around the NBA, particularly stars that may have been interested in playing for the Lakers.

Can stars around the NBA trust the Lakers to build a winner?

If the Lakers are struggling to build a playoff team, never mind a championship-caliber roster, around James, what would they do with a lesser star?

That has to be the question current and future players will ask themselves before deciding whether to come to Los Angeles.

The Lakers will always be a destination because of their storied history and the lure of L.A., but winning now doesn’t seem to be a given in that equation.

Los Angeles has failed on an organizational level to make good moves around James; that isn’t even a question.

Now, with a chance to correct their mistakes, the Lakers have been hesitant to move on from future first-round picks in the 2027 and 2029 NBA drafts to improve their roster.

Sure, there is the concern that trading those picks would damage the team’s future outlook, but the Lakers seem to be forgetting that they have LeBron James on their roster.

Everyone has seen what James can do with a competent roster, and he even gave the Lakers more incentive to go all in around him by signing an extension that keeps him with the team through at least next season.

So what are the Lakers waiting for? The clock is ticking, and it’s ticking fast after the team’s 3-10 start to the 2022-23 season.

Los Angeles has to realize this is about more than just salvaging the final years of James’ career. This is about everything that happens from this point on.

If stars in the game today and those that will enter the NBA in the future see that the Lakers are hesitant to go all in for one of the greatest players of all time, how do they think they’ll be treated if they choose to come to Los Angeles?

Right now, the Lakers are building a poor image for themselves with their handling of the past few seasons, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to change so far this season.

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Peter is a graduate of Quinnipiac University where he covered the MAAC and college basketball for three years. He has worked for NBC Sports, the Connecticut Sun and the Meriden Record-Journal covering basketball and other major sports. Follow him on Twitter @peterdewey2.