What’s next for LeBron James and the Lakers after LA was eliminated from playoff contention on Tuesday with a 116-97 loss to the Suns?
The disastrous end to an injury-plagued season raises a host of questions about how the Lakers will move forward. Which role players will return? Will LA trade Russell Westbrook? Can they even trade the former league MVP, who has a $47 million player option for the 2022-23 season?
Last month, Westbrook and the Lakers reportedly had a mutual interest in finding him a new team this summer. But after he finished his season Tuesday, Westbrook said he hopes to stay with the team.
“I mean, that’s the plan,” Westbrook said of returning next season to finish the final year of his contract with the Lakers. “But nothing is promised. Yeah, we want to be able to see what that looks like, what that entails over the course of an 82-game season. But we’re also not sure if that’s guaranteed. So I just hope we get a chance to be able to do something.”
The Westbrook trade removed whatever safety net the Lakers had for the foreseeable future. He is the highest-paid player on the Los Angeles roster, at $44 million, ahead of LeBron James ($41 million). One possibility to get rid of Westbrook’s contract could be to flip John Wall, who has a similar remaining contract with the Rockets.
The Lakers acquired Westbrook last summer in hopes of forming a Big 3 with James and Anthony Davis, who was limited to 40 games this season due to injury. James also dealt with injuries throughout his career-high scoring season, and Westbrook struggled offensively. Those factors contributed to the Big 3 playing just 21 games together.
“Who knows?” Davis spoke Tuesday about what the future holds in Los Angeles, after posting 21 points and 13 rebounds in the Suns’ loss. Tuesday’s loss marked LA’s seventh straight loss in Hail Marry’s bid to qualify for the entry tournament.
The Lakers are 31-48 on the season, already the most losses in a season of any James-led team in his career with three still to play. Los Angeles’ season meltdown began just after the All-Star break, which marked the worst post-break record in franchise history.
After assembling a Hall of Fame roster that included Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard, Los Angeles’ master plan was quickly foiled when James and company. could not meet on the ground.
The Lakers’ plan for key players also backfired. Talen Horton-Tucker was not a factor. Kendrick Nunn has never appeared in a single game this season due to a knee injury. Other key players, including Kent Bazemore and Trevor Ariza, played just a third of the season.
“This year, we had more starting lineups than wins,” Davis said. “Our goal was to win a championship. I feel like we had the pieces, but injuries got in the way. And that was the difference in the season.”
On Monday, Lakers legend Earvin Magic Johnson went on an ESPN morning show and criticized the Lakers for choosing a Westbrook experiment over acquiring Bulls star DeMar DeRozan, who is playing a basketball historic in Chicago.
Johnson also said that Lakers coach Frank Vogel would likely be the scapegoat. Shortly after Johnson’s comments, Vogel was the subject of a firing report, which was no surprise, as his job has been questioned all season due to Los Angeles’ continued struggles.
“Extremely disappointed,” Vogel said after the Lakers’ season ended Tuesday. “Disappointed for our fan base. Disappointed for the Buss family who gave us all this opportunity and we want to play our part in bringing success to Lakers basketball and we fell short.”
The end of the Lakers’ season raises another question: Will James commit to a contract extension this summer?
The 37-year-old is eligible for a contract extension on August 4, and by then the Lakers could have a tight roster and a different coach.