Lakers must win offseason to avoid this season's embarrassment turning uglier

LeBron needs help from trades or free-agent market for team to move forward

They’ll finish the season without a playoff spot — which became official after Friday’s loss to Brooklyn — as their legendary superstar deals with failure and their fan base does a collective head scratch over what went wrong and what size hammer just hit them.

But all that has happened to the Lakers in 2018-19 doesn’t qualify as devastation.

No, devastation will be if they have a dreadful summer.

Lost in the turmoil of getting swept by the Knicks, LeBron James’ groin pull, Lonzo Ball’s ankle sprain, Brandon Ingram’s blood clot and fallout from the proposed Anthony Davis trade is the forgotten reality that the Lakers were never built to do anything special this season. Challenging for a championship or even reaching the conference finals was never the goal or purpose. This team wasn’t built that way. This was never a “win-now” project, as much as the noise perhaps led you to believe.

This was always a “win-in-July-2019” project.

This season was an embarrassment, nothing less and certainly nothing more. Missing out on the playoffs was unexpected, but not damaging in the big picture. All it did was give talk shows some meaty material, mainly because LeBron was involved and for the first time since 2006 the game’s best player won’t be in prime time this spring or summer. That’s all.

But if the Lakers lose big this summer, it could have far-reaching implications for LeBron, the franchise — and all of it would be bad. There would be justifiable second-guessing, blown opportunities, broken promises, a front office under fire, maybe a strong reaction from owner Jeanie Buss and a fan base in uproar.

Most or all of the above will follow the Lakers into next season if they don’t win the offseason. Plenty is riding on president Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka making the right moves to maximize the remaining three years on LeBron’s contract and make the Lakers title contenders. The Lakers do have certain factors in their favor — ample cap space, the charms of LA, the presence of LeBron and just being a destination franchise — and so it could work out.

There’s also a worst-case scenario that would be nightmarish for all involved should all of the following happen this summer:

Anthony Davis Isn’t Traded To The Lakers

The primary target in the Get Help For LeBron effort was always Davis, for understandable reasons. He’s a generational talent who’s still in his prime, he has already stated a desire to play for the Lakers and among superstars he’s unassuming and therefore probably the best fit to play in the shadow of LeBron, which can be overwhelming for some.

The drawback is Davis, unlike a handful of other A-list players, isn’t a free agent this summer. And while he has some leverage in where he plays next, the Pelicans own his rights for one more season and the ultimate decision rests with them.

Evidently, they believe they can get a better package for Davis than the Lakers offered at the trade deadline, perhaps because someone else whispered in their ear (cough … Celtics, Knicks … cough). The Pelicans are looking for a haul in order to save face and reshape a losing team and this summer buys them time and a clearer market.

The Lakers suffered a blow in the upcoming Davis auction when Ingram suffered his injury, which required surgery. Does that devalue Ingram to a degree in the eyes of New Orleans? Perhaps. And the Lakers don’t have anyone to replace him in any proposal, since Ingram was the centerpiece to any proposal.

The Lakers Don’t Get A Top-Three Draft Pick

The odds of them landing at or near the top spot in the June draft isn’t very high, and will be probably be less than 10 percent once the draft order is determined in May. It’s just that with a high pick, the Lakers will own an asset to keep or trade for Davis. If there was ever a team that could use a frozen envelope, it’s the Lakers. Oh, wait: The Knicks are back in the lottery, too. Never mind.

Kawhi Leonard Signs With The Clippers

This would qualify as a double-whammy. It would cross a free agent off the Lakers’ list and meanwhile they’d watch him go to the crosstown Clippers. What’s more, it would mean Jerry West one-upped his former team. Make that a triple whammy, then.

Kevin Durant Re-Signs With The Warriors

Not only would the Lakers miss out on the top free agent on the market and someone who’s almost guarantee a changing of the guard in the West if not the NBA, KD staying with the Warriors would mean the Golden State dynasty continues. Therefore, even if the Lakers did get Davis (and strip themselves of a supporting cast in the process) they would still trail the Warriors in terms of star power.

Klay Thompson Re-Signs With The Warriors

This would be Durant Lite in terms of impact, but still.

Jimmy Butler And Kyrie Irving Sign With Anyone But The Lakers

He’s probably not a game-changing player and might not be the best fit next to LeBron. Still, while Butler isn’t the most attraction option, he is a good one, and maybe a necessary one if the Lakers strike out in other places. Butler would be better than nothing. Meanwhile, it’s hard to envision Irving reattaching himself to LeBron when he escaped LeBron three summers ago (and still hasn’t given a coherent reason for doing so).

And that’s it. Should the Lakers whiff on three or more of these players, times will get tense in L.A.. Yes, there are solid free agents such as Kemba Walker, Khris Middleton, DeMarcus Cousins and others available this summer, and Mike Conley could be available in a trade. Yet they qualify as fallback Plan B players, not gotta-have players.

Remember, the Lakers and Magic gambled heavily just to put themselves in position to seize the summer of 2019. They traded D’Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets because the Nets also agreed to take Timofey Mozgov’s massive contract (in addition to sending a No. 1 pick to LA which became Kyle Kuzma). They didn’t re-sign Julius Randle, their former lottery pick from two years ago. They also bailed on Lou Williams and traded promising young center Ivica Zubac, all because they didn’t want to commit to any long-term money beyond 2018. Well: Randle, Russell and Williams are having career years and Zubac might be a starter next season. Not to mention, Brook Lopez is succeeding on the best team in the East.

Suppose the Lakers did all that … and didn’t maximize the cap flexibility that came in return? It will have all been a waste, and a costly one at that.

Should the Lakers endure a summer to dismember, then they’ll be forced to scramble to pad the roster, pray that LeBron’s body won’t fail him again as he turns 35 and hope Ball, Ingram and Kuzma produce breakout seasons. That’s a lot of positive projections. It would be a best-case scenario on the heels of a worst-case scenario.

If you think the Lakers are catching hell now, well, a poor summer would mean there’d be hell to pay.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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