LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers have officially been swept in the Western Conference Finals by the burgeoning Denver Nuggets. After a harrowing 2-10 start, the Lakers have been somewhat of a surprise Cinderella story since the back end of the season. After a slew of moves at the deadline, the Lakers finished the season with the best record since the All-Star break.
D’Angelo Russell‘s return, the addition of Rui Hachimura, and Austin Reaves, seemed to add the much needed scoring punch that the Lakers were missing outside of James and Anthony Davis. Jarred Vanderbilt on the other hand, was a much needed fierce defensive presence for the Lakers.
However, after dispatching of the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors with relative ease, it was clear that the Lakers ran into a buzzsaw with the Denver Nuggets. With each game being relatively close, it always seemed that the Lakers just needed to find the right adjustments to take over the series.
This outlook is a bit simplistic however. Despite playing well overall, Anthony Davis did not consistently exert his dominance in a manner that should be expected of a superstar with his talents. Darvin Ham stubbornly kept starting D’Angelo Russell(until game 4) despite his horrific play in the series, and likewise refused to start Hachimura(again, until game 4) despite finding much success with Rui.
Despite doing his best, including a superhuman game 4 performance, LeBron was clearly hobbled and unable to single-handedly drag the Lakers over the finish line. All of this raises the obvious question, where do the Lakers go from here?
They can certainly run it back, making it to the Conference Finals is hardly a colossal failure. However, the Nuggets are a younger, hungrier team, and not going anywhere. If the Lakers did not beat them this year, what would be different next year? Though LeBron continues to astonish with his amazing play at an advanced age, a certain obvious reality exists. James cannot consistently lead a team like he used to. Nagging injuries are to be expected with LeBron at this point. He will not have a fully healthy season again.
Anthony Davis is as good a co-star as you can hope for, but he is wildly inconsistent, and on the nights that he is unable to bring it, the Lakers will need additional help. D’Angelo Russell proved to be a capable during the regular season, but completely disappeared in the playoffs. However, his contract is a cap hold for the Lakers and they will not be able to move him this off-season, and even if they could, his value is likely at an all-time low.
Darvin Ham definitely deserves a fair share of blame for the Lakers collapse against the Nuggets as well. The difference between a good and great coach is the ability to make adjustments on the fly, particularly on the biggest stage. Ham has not proven he can do this, so despite the fact that a few coaches have undeservingly gotten the axe this season, it may not be unwarranted in this case.
The current reality for the Lakers is that they have a lot of difficult questions, and no easy answers.