It never would have mattered. Nothing short of a championship would have been enough to stop the LeBron detractors. Maybe even his fans could be convinced that the season would somehow be a failure if the Lakers didn’t win a championship or get to the Finals. But it reached a fever pitch a couple weeks after the All Star Game. Here, let Jim Mora Jr.’s dad tell you:
By just about all accounts, the Lakers season was a disaster. Expectations can only be sky high if a team hits the ultimate jackpot in free agency: Lance Stephenson AND Michael Beasley. But spare me the drama, mama. To paraphrase legendary blogger Mark Twain, the reports of the Lakers demise have been greatly exaggerated.
The Lakers failed at even the least of their ambitions and now must walk home with their tail between their legs. And as much as that warms the heart of jilted Cavs fans, the future as always has not yet been written. The Lakers are one of a handful of franchises that dominate the media because of a combustible mix of market size, unparalleled success, and the resentment of fans whose teams simply weren’t as good. And the media definitely had their fun the last few months.
But taking a look objectively and wading through the unfounded speculation of the talking heads, the Lakers were simply unlucky this year. You can say all you want about the quite valid concerns of dysfunction in the front office (this team leaked more than Chelsea Manning) and the questionable leadership of some guy named LeBron, but winning is the best medicine in sports.
Why did they do so bad this year? It’s hard not to point to the injuries. The Lakers starting 5 last played together on Christmas way back in 2018. They’d just blown out Golden State even after losing LBJ to injury and sat 4th in the West. And just when the hype starting building up, the Lakers played the next 18 games without the best player in the world with no second superstar to carry a load. And who knew that Lonzo Ball had such a positive impact on team success even without scoring? (this guy) The Lakers were 7th in the league in defensive rating when Ball played his last game and ended the year 20th. They were 25-22 in games Lonzo played and 12-23 when he didn’t.
Magic and Rob Pelinka’s off season strategy of signing the guys that’ll play the aliens in Space Jam 2 backfired. The Lakers depth set the team back as they could not piece together any momentum even after the King returned. Coach Luke Walton definitely didn’t silence doubters. And the looming presence of the next Red Auerbach, one Ty Lue, currently working for the Clippers, is ever more.
Even with the sudden disappearing act pulled by Magic Johnson before the season’s last game (telling the media before his boss), the Lakers are still well positioned for the future. Maybe the hybrid roles involving him and Rob Pelinka was doomed from the start. If Magic’s heart wasn’t in it, he did the best thing for the franchise (but maybe in the worst way) and now the Lakers can find the right, experienced replacement or Kobe’s behind the scenes backstabbing finally finds him on the Iron Throne.
Moving on to a sunnier disposition. Even with a 19-63 record and just parting ways with their coach, the Cleveland Cavaliers seem a more competent organization and that’s saying something after having fired Coach Ty Lue for starting the season 0-6 even when their best strategy was to tank all year. And tank they did. The Cavs continue their rebuild with the 2nd best lottery odds (Ja Morant > R.J. Barrett) to help attract a new coach. I still see an off-season trade centered around Kevin Love to Portland for C.J. McCollum, a native of Northeast Ohio. The Blazers last ditch effort to court Damian Lillard and bring their own native star home.
And now without further adieu, some Playoffs and Awards Predictions:
Most Improved Player: Pascal Siakam - Mainly because his name reminds me of the great Vai Sikahema. This guy’s a big reason Kawhi’s Raptors can be fierce in the playoffs this year.
6th Man of the Year: Lou Williams - Close to joining Jamal Crawford as one of the preeminent 6th men in NBA history. Weird thing is that teammate Montrezl Harrell is also a contender for this award? Not sure how that happens but please do enjoy this story about Lou Williams.
Rookie of the Year: Luka Doncic - Trae Young made a spirited run and the rivalry between these two whom were traded on draft day for each other will be a great story for the next decade plus. Doncic is special special. That guy is going to take teams places.
Coach of the Year: Mike Budenholzer - Look, the Bucks are very talented but the effect Budenholzer has had this year, taking Milwaukee to the best record in an NBA where the Golden State Warriors exist needs to be recognized. But more importantly, Ty Lue only coached 6 games.
Defensive Player of the Year: Lonzo Ball, I mean Giannis Antetokounmpo - This is the Year of the Greek. The man I’m sure can coast the length of the court in 3 steps. Rudy Gobert and Paul George are contenders as well but they don’t have the singular anytime anywhere threat that the Bucks big man poses.
MVP - Giannis Antetokounmpo - Giannis, much more ‘of the people’ personality wise and with a similarly versatile and athletically ascendant game to him is the antidote to LeBron. And this is his year of anointment. He averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists on 58% shooting, numbers not seen in decades. (you have to go back to the Kareems, Wilts, Elgins, and Oscars) Especially after Kawhi Leonard goes to LA in the summer, he is your King in the East.
#1 Milwaukee Bucks v. #8 Detroit Pistons - It’s tempting to give Detroit one game in this series but they didn’t really impress near the very end of the season and maybe Budenholzer is really gonna have the Bucks focused. Milwaukee in 4.
#2 Toronto Raptors v. #7 Orlando Magic - Who said Magic missed the playoffs? This Orlando team has spunk and can surprise. This is the best chance Toronto has had since well, really, ever with LeBron gone. If this is their only year with Kawhi, they’ll need to make the most of it. Raptors in 5.
#3 Philadelphia 76ers v. #6 Brooklyn Nets - The Nets were one of the surprises of the year but they shouldn’t match up well with a Philly team with a lot of pressure on them. Even with Embiid injury concerns, Philly should prevail. 6ers in 6.
#4 Boston Celtics v. #5 Indiana Pacers - A testament to a strong top to bottom organization was the Pacers ability to lose Victor Oladipo for the season in late January and still secure the 5th seed. And the Celtics are weird. And may miss Marcus Smart this series. Still, they’re not gonna lose this series, right? Right? Celtics in 6.
#1 Golden State Warriors v. #8 L.A. Clippers - The Clippers and Warriors have had some fun playoff games over the last few years. They usually included the likes of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. This new look Clippers team may be better off than the Lakers in every facet but they’ve still never gotten local respect. That may change next year. Warriors in 5.
#2 Denver Nuggets v. #7 San Antonio Spurs - It would be the most San Antonio Spurs thing to make the playoffs this year as a 7th seed and take down the less experienced young Nuggets. The Nuggets are really nice and at least one Pencilstorm writer (Big $) predicted this success. Nuggets in 6.
#3 Portland Trail Blazers v. #6 Oklahoma City Thunder - Remember when the Blazers were a 3 seed in last year’s playoffs and got swept? They have an even worse matchup this year facing a Thunder team with 2 superstars that swept them 4-0 in the regular season. And on top of that they’ve lost center Jusuf Nurkic to a broken leg. This series should have plenty of volatile scoring duels between Dame Lillard and Russ Westbrook. If the Blazers lose in the first round yet again, I believe that’ll be the last straw for Lillard. This might be the toughest series to call. Thunder in 7.
#4 Houston Rockets v. #5 Utah Jazz - Can the Jazz defense contain Juggernaut James Harden? Doubtful. There’s a distinct gap between the top 4 and the bottom 4 in this year’s West. The Rockets should prevail easily and may want to make quick work of Utah with a 2nd round date looming with one Golden State. Rockets in 5.
Eastern Conference Cont.:
Bucks v. Celtics - Many considered these two teams the biggest contenders in the East and a likely Conference Finals matchup but again, Boston is weird. Who knows which team shows up? They have Kyrie and experience but the Bucks may have destiny. They’ll need it. Bucks in 7.
76ers v. Raptors - The final four in the East should be two exciting series. I think Philly gets it together and edges the Raps. They have the higher ceiling and more top level talent. 76ers in 7.
Bucks v. 76ers - This could easily be the Celtics and the Raptors. This is the farthest either of these franchises have gotten in some time. It’s Embiid versus Antetokounmpo Round 1, 2 guys that should dominate the next decade. It’s hard to ignore Philly’s Big Four but they may not have enough time to gel while the Bucks have been consistently excellent. They’re the safer pick with the MVP the NBA wants in the FInals. Bucks in 7.
Western Conference Cont.:
Warriors v. Rockets - The Rockets were so close last year. The Warriors have seemed a little out of it at times this year. But they’re still the best until someone beats ‘em. Warriors in 6.
Nuggets v. Thunder - I originally picked the Blazers to be here mainly so I could make a “Will these Nuggets get Blazed?” joke. (i't’s bad I know) Even though watching Russell Westbrook and Paul George trying to score at will to outduel the Warriors sounds tantalizing, these Nuggets have proven to be the real deal. Nuggets in 6.
Warriors v. Nuggets - I wish I could say it matters. But barring injury, only the funniest of Draymond Green and Kevin Durant dust-ups could result in derailing the Warriors. Warriors in 5.
Warriors v. Bucks - I just hope people watch and Giannis becomes even bigger. And I hope someone can beat the Warriors only to give hope to future generations that the championship isn’t necessarily decided before the season started like it’s felt the last couple years after the Warriors got KD. This will be the last year together for the Warriors and unfortunately, they’re going to go down as one of the greatest teams ever assembled. Adding one of the best scorers of all time to a 73-9 team might do that. Warriors in 6.