All LeBron and the Lakers can do now is ask “What if?” and “What’s next?”

It’s easy to forget now, but the Los Angeles Lakers started the year 22-7 and spent half a season looking exactly like a defending champion with the maybe-GOAT on their side.

It seemed inevitable that the Lakers would be playing in the NBA Finals, this time in front of a packed home crowd in Staples Center, not inside an empty gym in Orlando. 

Instead, on Thursday night the defending champs were run off the floor in their own building in the first round.

Devin Booker dropped 47 points, in the televised homicide that put the final nail in the coffin for a Lakers team that had been trying to rise from the dead since the initial injuries to Davis and James months ago. 

Which brings us to the big question: How’d we get here again?

You can start with the moment the Lakers won the title in the Bubble last year. The returning members of last year’s title team had not had a meaningful break since. The shortest turnaround from season to season in the history of sports.

This pandemic season handed the Lakers a litany of built-in rationalizations for why a team that had bullied its way to a championship in the bubble might not repeat the feat. Add in extended absences due to COVID-19 protocols, lack of a training camp, minimal chemistry building and injuries. Oh the injuries. 

This year could have been more. Of course, it could have. But how much more is actually in the tank for the LeBron James era of Lakers basketball?

LeBron James has been a Laker for three seasons and in two of those years, the Lakers haven’t won so much as a playoff series.

Even with a title sandwiched between those two disappointments, it’s hard not to feel like the Lakers just wasted a year of the precious time remaining in LeBron’s career.

“The one thing that bothers me more than anything is we never really got an opportunity to see our full team at full strength,” James said Thursday night. “Either because of injury or COVID or something going on with our ballclub this year, we could never fully get into a rhythm. And never really kind of see the full potential of what we could be capable of.”

It’s a testament to the historic greatness of the James and Davis pairing that the Lakers were still seen in many circles as favorites to win the West prior to Davis’ injury. As long as those two are healthy, the Lakers figure to be real contenders.

“We were rolling,” Davis said. “We had the pieces. We just couldn’t stay healthy. A lot of that was me. When we have a main guy that’s not on the floor and you have another guy… Your two main guys aren’t able to participate, it’s just tough.”

It goes down as the ultimate season of “what if” for the Lakers.

What if… 

… Davis either stays healthy in the regular season or even just doesn’t suffer the hyperextended knee in Game 3 that set off such a series of unfortunate events for the supremely talented big man?

… Solomon Hill does not dive into LeBron’s leg on March 20, causing the worst injury of James’ career?

… Marc Gasol and Dennis Schröder avoid the COVID-19 protocols?

Those inflection points affected the Lakers’ continuity and heightened the potential for combustion.

Even with all of that said, with those red flags flapping wildly in the wind, the Lakers held a 2-1 series advantage against the Suns and would have drawn a wounded Denver team in Round 2. But then Davis stepped awkwardly and his knee injury morphed into a groin injury.

Before that moment the Lakers had a clear path to the Western Conference Finals – if not the NBA Finals. That was Sunday. Four nights later, their season was over.

But just blaming injuries is perhaps too easy. The Lakers had two elite stars, but they also had the league’s most yawning gap between their second- and third-best players. The Phoenix series underscored how overmatched the Lakers were at roster spots three through nine against a good opponent. 

L.A. was riddled by the likes of Deandre Ayton and Cameron Payne and had no similar secondary weapons coming to their own rescue. Aside from the two marquee stars, it’s hard to name a single Laker who would start for more than a third of the league’s teams.

Remember, it wasn’t supposed to be this way, especially at the offensive end. The Lakers’ 2020 offseason was designed with the specific purpose of surrounding James and Davis with more talent, in hopes of fortifying an attack that was pretty anemic whenever James checked out in 2019-20. Such a team would also better withstand an absence from one of the stars.

They used their full non-taxpayer mid-level exception on Montrezl Harrell, who hardly played in the postseason. They traded the perennially underrated Danny Green to get a better offensive creator in Dennis Schröder, surrendering their first-round pick to do it. Hemmed in against the apron by the Harrell signing, they gave up two second-round picks to turn JaVale McGee into Marc Gasol. They used their biannual exception on Wes Matthews and brought back Markieff Morris on a minimum deal. Still unsatisfied, they brought in Andre Drummond on a buyout deal this spring; installed as a starter upon arrival, he was so impressive that they DNP’d him in the final game.

Pelinka was universally praised for his moves to retool a championship team.

But not a single one of them panned out.

The team was constructed with the thought process that James and Davis would be healthy. The duo was in place to mask the extreme flaws of this limited roster. Remove two top 7 players from any roster and the team is folding. The Lakers were met with that situation and folded as expected. 

The what if scenario of not trading for Kyle Lowry, Derrick Rose, and a proven reliable veteran playmaker at the deadline will haunt the minds of Laker faithful and Rob Pelinka. The package for Lowry was hefty as it included KCP, Kuzma, and Talen Horton Tucker, the Lakers only promising young asset. 

Does Lowry make a difference? Who knows. 

Either way, the future is now a rather interesting debate. James will be 37 next year. Davis is 28, but his injury history is starting to become concerning; he’s played 56, 62 and 32 games the past three seasons, and has never played more than 75.

The Lakers need to bring in some help for these guys, but this is where the NBA’s salary cap and luxury tax rules are having their desired effect in at least somewhat leveling the playing field. Yes, even for the Lakers, it’s going to be tough to bring in quality starters with the assets and cap resources at their disposal. In this case, the issue isn’t whether to push their chips in, it’s finding the chips.

Schröder, Morris, Drummond, Matthews, Horton-Tucker, Alex Caruso, Jared Dudley and Ben McLemore are free agents. Marc Gasol may be retiring. That leaves the Lakers with 8 open roster spots and next to nothing left in cap space to fill it out. 

Even if the Lakers wanted to run it back with the same group, their tax situation makes it virtually impossible. Schröder turned down a contract extension because he’s looking for a deal in excess of $20 million a year, according to reports. 

Caruso made only $2.5 million last year and is due for a major raise; one suspects he will have offers around the mid-level exception. Ditto for the 21-year-old Horton-Tucker, who is likely to draw offer sheets in the same range from teams who question whether the Lakers can stomach a large luxury tax hit for a developmental player.

Just paying those three players their market value would put the Lakers about $30 million into the tax; adding a player with the taxpayer mid-level exception and three minimum contracts on top of that would push them more than $40 million over. The concomitant penalty for that tax breach is $140 million, a check even this deep-pocketed franchise wouldn’t stomach writing … especially to bring back a team that finished in seventh and lost in the first round.

No, the Lakers need to get a whole lot more creative this time around. The first step is figuring out what to do with Harrell. Surely they can’t bring him back and have a $9.7 million salary slot occupied by somebody they won’t use in a playoff game.

He could give them an out by declining his $9.7 million player option for next season, but the Lakers cratered his market value enough that he may prefer to opt-in and wait for a trade. The silver lining is that he gives the Lakers a matching salary to put in a trade, and they are very short on the type of middle-class contracts in the $10-15 million range that are the grease for so many deals. Kyle Kuzma is the only other Laker salary in this class, and it’s fair to ask if it makes sense to have him making $13 million a year when that money could go toward upgrades in the backcourt. Even in the playoffs, with L.A. desperate for secondary scoring, it was unable to get him going. 

Even if the Lakers wanted to execute a sign-and-trade for somebody like Lowry, and came up with the matching contracts, they would have a very hard time filling out the rest of the roster with something more than minimum contracts while staying below the apron. With James and Davis making $76 million between them, there just isn’t a lot of wiggle room left over.

When Brooklyn and Milwaukee were in a somewhat similar position, they nabbed their third star by trading all their draft assets and cobbling together just enough matching salary to make it work. The problem for the Lakers is that they already did that in the Davis trade, and now don’t have enough left over to swing a trade for an A-List talent. The Lakers can trade their pick on draft night, but it’s only 22nd, and they don’t have another first-rounder to put in a trade until 2027 because of the Stepien rule.

If it sounds like this is going to be challenging, that’s kind of my point. L.A. only has two clear means of bringing in talent: using its taxpayer mid-level exception to sign a free agent in the $5 million range, and using its first-round pick and an existing salary (likely Kuzma or, if he opts in, Harrell) to trade for an upgrade with a contract in the $10-15 million range.

Last season they were in a similar situation, albeit with a bit more salary wiggle room, and ended up with Schröder and Harrell. That ended up looking a lot better in November than it did in May. This offseason they’re going to need to do much, much, better, or the supporting cast will again be found wanting.

The good news here is that as long as James and Davis can play at their peak, the Lakers will always have a chance. Even in this series, they had the Suns on the ropes until Davis went down in Game 4.

But age and injuries mean asking those two to carry the team on their backs every night is no longer reasonable, especially if chasing banners is still the end game.

There is a chance the LeBron James championship window is permanently shut. But there is an equally good chance the Lakers are back on top if good health and a few moves pan out.

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