LeBron James will not be in the NBA play-offs for the first time since 2005.
The Los Angeles Lakers were mathematically eliminated from the play-off race following a 111-106 defeat by the Brooklyn Nets on Friday night.
James was not expected to immediately deliver a title after moving to the tougher Western Conference last year, but few predicted the Lakers struggling so badly they missed the play-offs for a sixth year in a row.
What has gone wrong in Los Angeles?
Christmas Day was the peak of the Lakers’ season and the moment it started to fall apart.
They thrashed defending champions the Golden State Warriors 127-101 but small forward James left the game with a strained left groin.
The Lakers had 20 wins, 14 defeats and sat fourth in the Western Conference, with James, 34, saying he would be back soon.
Instead he missed the next 17 games – the longest absence of his career – during which the Lakers won only six times and slipped out of the play-off spots, never returning.
The injuries have kept coming – the defence has crumbled without point guard Lonzo Ball, out since January with an ankle sprain.
And earlier this month, small forward Brandon Ingram – on the best run of his career after a slow start to the year – was ruled out for the season, needing surgery to remove a blood clot in his right arm.
A puzzling roster
James has had a superb season, averaging more than 27 points, eight assists and eight rebounds per game, but part of the roster is a bizarre bunch of incompatible characters.
During his run of eight straight NBA finals with the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers, James thrived playing with gifted three-point shooters – this year the Lakers are second bottom in three-point percentage.
Instead of recruiting shooters, the Lakers, although likely with James’ input, opted for veterans Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Javale McGee and Michael Beasley.
Those four are some of the league’s most eccentric personalities – Stephenson once tried to annoy James by blowing in his ear – and have been largely ineffective.
Players the Lakers recently let go are starring elsewhere – Milwaukee Bucks centre Brook Lopez is hitting threes, New Orleans Pelicans power forward Julius Randle is averaging 20 points per game and Brooklyn Nets point guard D’Angelo Russell has become an all-star.
A failed trade
If you need to keep morale high for a scrap to stay in play-off contention, do not let four key players find out you tried to trade them away.
In January, Pelicans centre Anthony Davis – one of the best players in the NBA – requested a trade, widely seen as an attempt to move to the Lakers, given Davis and James share an agent.
The Lakers reportedly put prospects Ball, Ingram, Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma in offers but the Pelicans rejected every bid until the trade deadline on 7 February.
The young Lakers avoided being traded, but the possibility they will be this summer remains, as Ingram was reminded by opposition fans chanting, “LeBron’s gonna trade you”.
‘Play-off mode’ fails to activate
With the Lakers still faltering after his return, James said he had “activated” play-off mode to try and reach the post-season.
He must have missed the on switch. The Lakers won only two of their next eight games and decided to scale back James’ minutes, effectively confirming they had given up.
The most chastening moment of James’ season was still to come.
Going for the game winner at the New York Knicks, James was blocked by journeyman Mario Hezonja as the Lakers fell to a 124-123 defeat against the league’s worst team.
So, what next?
Missing the play-offs at least gives James more time to film Space Jam 2 this summer but how can he and the Lakers become contenders from here?
James’ contract runs for three more seasons and the offbeat veterans were only signed to one-year deals, so the Lakers have salary cap space to pursue talented free agents.
Losing games could even be their best option now, because a worse record increases a team’s chances of a higher pick in June’s NBA draft.
They have trade assets and will go after Davis again, but a bright future is not certain.
Heavyweight free agents like Leonard, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have been more regularly linked with other teams, while this year’s draft class is not considered overly strong beyond projected number one pick Zion Williamson.
Ball and Ingram should be back fit next season but their injury history might worry potential trade partners and the Lakers have to decide whether to fire coach Luke Walton.
Hanging over all this is how long James, who turns 35 in December, can stay at least near the peak of his powers. It is no given the King will win a fourth ring in LA.