What’s next for LeBron James and the Lakers after LA was eliminated from playoff contention Tuesday with a 116-97 loss to the Suns?
The disastrous end to an injury-plagued season brings on a slew of questions about how the Lakers will move forward. Which role players will return? Will L.A. 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 mutual interest in finding him a new team this summer. But after his season ended Tuesday, Westbrook said he expects to remain with the team.
“I mean, that’s the plan,” Westbrook said about returning next season to finish the last year on his Lakers contract. “But nothing is promised. Yes, 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 not sure if that’s guaranteed, either. So I just hope that we have a chance to be able to do something.”
The Westbrook trade took away any safety net the Lakers had for the immediate future. He is the highest-paid player on LA’s roster, earning $44 million, ahead of LeBron James ($41 million). One possibility of dumping the Westbrook contract could be to flip it for 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 said Tuesday about what the future holds in LA — after recording 21 points and 13 rebounds in the Suns loss. Tuesday’s defeat marked L.A’s seventh straight loss in a Hail Marry attempt to qualify for the play-in tournament.
The Lakers are 31-48 on the season — already the most losses in a season by any James-led team in his career with still three to go. The collapse of L.A’.s season began right after the All-Star break, which marked the worst post-break record in franchise history.
After uniting a Hall of Fame roster that included Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard, L.A’s master plan was quickly foiled when James and co. couldn’t gel together on the floor.
The Lakers’ plan for key role players also failed. Talen Horton-Tucker was a non-factor. Kendrick Nunn never appeared in a single game this season due to a knee injury. Other key role 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. Feel like we had the pieces, but injuries got in the way of that. And that was the difference in the season.”
On Monday, Lakers legend Earvin Magic Johnson went on an ESPN morning show spree and torched the Lakers for choosing a Westbrook experiment over acquiring Bulls star DeMar DeRozan, who is playing history-making basketball in Chicago.
Johnson also said Lakers coach Frank Vogel would likely be the fall guy. Soon after Johnson’s comments, Vogel was the subject of a firing report, which wasn’t a surprise, as his job has been questioned all season long due to L.A’s continuous struggle.
“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 Laker basketball and we fell short.”
The ending of the Lakers’ season begs another question: Will James commit to a contract extension this summer?
The 37-year-old is eligible for a contract extension on Aug. 4 — and by then, the Lakers could have an adjusted roster and a different coach.