The arrival of LeBron James as their latest in a succession of superstar imports was supposed to halt the longest period of suffering in the Los Angeles Lakers’ California history.
What James and the Lakers have experienced instead will be remembered as the most disappointing season of James’s career — because it will extend a stubborn playoff drought that has flummoxed the N.B.A.’s most glamorous franchise.
Not even James’s presence could prevent a sixth straight missed postseason for the new Lakers, who are mere days from being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs entering Sunday’s visit to Madison Square Garden to face the Knicks. The Lakers, remember, missed the playoffs only four times in their first 53 seasons after relocating from Minneapolis in the 1960-61 season.
So much for Hollywood fairy tales.
Perhaps expectations for this team were unrealistically high, given the modest quality of James’s supporting cast in Year 1, but his Lakerland debut was never supposed to veer this far off-script for a once-in-a-generation player. What follows is a breakdown of how things fell apart — in six stages.
The Shortest of Honeymoons
Without warning, on July 1, 2018, the first night of N.B.A. free agency, James announced through a 39-word news release that he was signing a four-year, $154 million contract with the Lakers.
Yet the ensuing celebration did not last even 24 hours.
On July 2, Golden State boldly swiped some of the Lakers’ thunder by signing the former All-Star big man DeMarcus Cousins to a bargain deal. The Lakers then spent the next week scouring the league for the best players willing to sign one-year contracts — thereby preserving salary-cap flexibility for the summer of 2019 and their planned pursuit of an All-Star sidekick for James.
The problem: Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, the Lakers’ nascent front-office power duo, signed a slew of nonshooters and, shall we say, mercurial personalities who, as a group, prompted instant second-guessing.
The Lakers countered the skepticism by insisting that playmakers and playoff-tested veterans, rather than shooting specialists who could open up space on the floor, would ease LeBron’s burden and potentially even match up well with the mighty Warriors — only to see their signees do little to hush the told-you-so crowd. JaVale McGee, the veteran center, initially exceeded expectations, but the quartet of Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Michael Beasley proved as collectively ineffective as feared.
Perhaps we should have known that this was not going to be the usual LeBron season when a fight broke out between a number of Lakers and Houston Rockets in James’s first home game at Staples Center.
And the tension never really let up.
After just eight games — five of them losses — Johnson summoned Coach Luke Walton for a pointed lecture about the Lakers’ sluggish start. The team’s legendary point-guard-turned-team president never intended for the meeting or any details to leak to the news media, but they promptly did in the no-secrets world of the N.B.A.
Johnson immediately tried to play down suggestions that Walton?