No Playoffs for LeBron James, No Job for Magic Johnson. Why the Lakers Fell Apart.


LOS ANGELES — Hours after Magic Johnson abruptly resigned as the Los Angeles Lakers’ president of basketball operations, and mere minutes after LeBron James’s first season as the franchise cornerstone ended with a buzzer-beating loss, James left Staples Center on Tuesday night without speaking to reporters, trailed only by security officers and questions about the team’s future.

It was not the season anyone envisioned for the Lakers, who had upended the N.B.A. by signing James last summer with the hype and expectation of returning the franchise to its glory years. One of the most storied teams in the league, the Lakers have not won a championship in nine years, and Los Angeles is frustrated, hungry and impatient.

Instead, the team collected nearly as many injuries as losses. James, who will miss the N.B.A. playoffs beginning Saturday for the first time in 14 years, watched the final six games of the season from the bench as the team looked to preserve him for next season. His next buzzy stop is a studio lot as the star of “Space Jam 2,” which he has said is set to begin filming this summer.

For the Lakers (37-45), all the drama was off the court, right up to the end, with Johnson’s abrupt announcement so out-of-the-blue that he had not even told his boss, the team owner Jeanie Buss, before wading into a gaggle of reporters.

Johnson had sealed a $154 million, four-year deal for James — two greats fulfilling their needs: Johnson to restore luster to a glamorous team; James to close out his career as a Laker and develop his business and entertainment interests centered on Hollywood.

And now they both left Staples Center with a losing record and a team in chaos.

In some ways, it was the perfect finale to a season that trafficked in dysfunction.

So there was the coach, Luke Walton, saying what losing coaches always say: essentially, wait until next year. His job may have been saved when Johnson quit, but he would not talk about that.

“We have a lot of time to work and get better,” Walton said late Tuesday after the Lakers’ loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. “Let’s organize and prioritize what we need to do so we can give ourselves a better chance next season.”

“If it had been a car, it would have been totaled,” he said.

To be fair, most fans were excited about James. The news media coverage was breathless. And perhaps no member of the ticket-paying public had invested more in LeBron-to-L.A. than Jacob Emrani, a personal injury lawyer from Beverly Hills, Calif., who had purchased space for 40 James-themed billboards in the run-up to free agency.

“I definitely didn’t think it was going to be something where we missed the playoffs or thought, ‘What the hell is happening here?’ ” Emrani said in an interview. “I’m disappointed in the breaks we got, but I’m not necessarily disappointed in LeBron. We were in fourth place when he went down.”

Emrani was referring to what may have been the season’s turning point: the Lakers’ ill-fated Christmas Day game against the Golden State Warriors, which James himself cited in a recent interview with Spectrum SportsNet, the Lakers’ broadcast partner. The Lakers were playing solid basketball at the time — in fact, they clobbered the Warriors to improve their record to 20-14 — but James injured his groin in the third quarter and wound up missing the next 17 games. The Lakers went into a tailspin without him.

“Disappointed in my body,” James told Spectrum SportsNet, adding: “Because I knew exactly where we were at that point. And we just were never able to get back from that.”

Once James returned, the team’s front office unsuccessfully tried to engineer a trade for another big star, the New Orleans Pelicans’ Anthony Davis — this, after James had told ESPN that it would be “amazing” to play alongside Davis.

The plan appeared to be to essentially trade away the rest of the team. The fallout was clear: Whatever fragile bonds that remained in the home locker room at Staples Center seemed to fray at the seams.

For many fans, it was impossible to dissociate James from the failed trade — James and Davis share an agent, Rich Paul — and much of the mess that followed.

“Nearly everyone on the roster was involved in those trade rumors,” Never said. “How can you really feel wanted if you think you’re going to be packing your locker the next day?”

As the losses mounted, so did the criticisms of James: that he appeared detached from his teammates, that basketball was secondary to his growing interest in his entertainment company, that his body was finally breaking down after so many years of athletic genius, that he was no longer capable of carrying a team to a title.

But in the 55 games that James did play this season, he was pretty good. He averaged 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists a game while shooting 51 percent from the field. Besides, a long summer may benefit him after so many extended playoff runs.

“The only thing that was hard was that he got hurt,” Walton said late Tuesday night. “It takes time to build a relationship with somebody. But as our relationship grew and I got to see what it was like coaching him, it was great. And I believe if we could have stayed healthy, we would have had a very successful season. He’s an incredible player.”

For his part, James told Spectrum SportsNet that he wanted to use the summer to get his body back to “120 percent” ahead of training camp — even as he moonlights on the set of “Space Jam 2.” He has been adamant that his work in entertainment will not interfere with his work on the basketball court.

The question is whether one bad season will become two. So much hinges on the summer as the Lakers look to add another star to their roster. (Emrani said he had plans for more billboards, though he declined to say which top-tier free agents he would target.) James has said that he will be as involved in the team’s recruiting efforts as possible.



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