This was supposed to be the year the Los Angeles Lakers returned to prominence.
After missing the playoffs five straight seasons, the arrival of LeBron James last July signaled that the Lakers were finally ready to start once again competing for the Western Conference crown.
Or so we thought.
Now that they've been officially eliminated from the playoffs for the sixth straight season, our NBA.com Staff breaks down the biggest reasons for why the Lakers fell so far short of preseason expectations.
The injury to LeBron James
The trajectory of the Lakers entire season drastically changed just 34 games in.
Up double-digits over the defending champs on Christmas Day, an awkward slip caused LeBron to go down with a groin injury that would surely sideline him for the remainder of the game. Without its All-Star Los Angeles held off a Golden State rally, eventually running away with a 25-point win to move to 20-14 on the season.
Many believed this young team would be enough to hold serve while James quickly recovered; neither happened.
As LeBron was sidelined for the longest time in his 16-year career, we faced the harsh reality that he might not be as invincible as we once knew him to be. On the floor, LA struggled to perform in his absence - after defeating Golden State, it lost five of its next six, plummeting in the Western Conference standings.
The hope would be that the Lakers could hover around .500 while LeBron sat, but the team fell to ninth place in the West, going 6-11 in his absence with losses to the Knicks, Cavaliers and Timberwolves (twice).
Once he returned, the team was essentially playing catch up to remain in the playoff race. If the residual effects of LeBron's injury weren't enough - he sat with workload management and appeared a step slower at times - injuries to Rajon Rondo, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram made an already-difficult season even worse.
- Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21)
The midseason trade rumblings
The Lakers could have withstanded the LeBron James injury if when he returned to the lineup, they were ready to get back in a groove. Sure, they went just 6-12 without him in the 19-game stretch in which he missed 18 games. But even when he returned, the Lakers never came together.
They looked nothing like the team that throttled Golden State on Christmas in the game that James infamously strained his groin, the game that had onlookers looking side-to-side, nodding heads and wondering out loud if this team could truly contend. That they weren't able to circle the wagons is a testament to the fragile nature that's sure to come when essentially the entire roster is openly being discussed in trade rumors for the better part of a month.
The defensive intensity, a hallmark of this young bunch a season ago, was gone. The offence sputtered with players unsure of roles or even their own abilities. In short, a fractured locker room that was practically palpable doomed this season before it could be saved. By the time James was ready to return, the damage was already done.
Take away the trade chatter and James returns to a .500 team with 30 games left in the season, more than enough time to make a run. Had they been able to squeeze in, would anyone truthfully and confidently be able to pick against a LeBron James team in the playoffs? I know I wouldn't have.
- Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13)
Signing Beasley, McGee, Rondo and Stephenson
As the start of the season grew closer and the Lakers began to fill out their roster around LeBron and the young core, there was one main question raised - where are the shooters?
Usually, LeBron-led teams are surrounded by guys who can consistently knock down shots from the perimeter, but the Lakers chose to go in a different direction.
Originally, I had thought these signings might work out in their favour, though. Rajon Rondo was coming off of a fantastic postseason with the New Orleans Pelicans and seemed like the perfect mentor for Lonzo Ball. JaVale McGee had just proved his value in helping the Golden State Warriors win a ring.
Michael Beasley and Lance Stephenson were no strangers to the spotlight or having their games critiqued under a microscope, so they would be prepared for the repercussions of playing with LeBron.
But as the season unfolded it became evident that signing all four of these guys may not have been in the Lakers' best interest - especially with the news that broke earlier this month.
It was reported that the Lakers' coaching staff urged Magic Johnson to re-sign Julius Randle and Brook Lopez, but he insisted on signing the four veterans instead.
It turns out, Randle and Lopez are both having the best seasons of their career.
Randle has looked like an unstoppable force for the Pelicans at times this season, posting 21.0 points and 8.7 rebounds a game. Lopez has been a lights-out shooter for the Bucks, converting 3-pointers at a 36.9 percent clip, while having the best defensive season of his 10 years in the league.
Imagining that pairing next to LeBron this year is a scary thought - but that's all it will be, a thought.
The decision to sign Beasley, McGee, Rondo and Stephenson over re-signing in-house talent will without a doubt be one of the biggest shadows cast over LeBron's first year in LA.
- Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_)
The Lakers entered this season excited by their young core of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart, rightly seen as one of the best young cores in the NBA.
While Kyle Kuzma found his feet quickly playing alongside LeBron as a swiss-army knife forward and Lonzo Ball played some of his best basketball alongside James, the positional overlap between LeBron and Brandon Ingram made life tough for the 21-year-old, with he and LeBron often occupying the same areas of the court.
For Hart, his numbers dipped across the board from last season, when it appeared he may be the player best suited to playing with LeBron as a floor-spacing shooter and solid defender.
So what went wrong?
The Lakers were confident that playing alongside LeBron would accelerate the development of their young stars, but with the increased expectations and scrutiny of playing on a LeBron-led team, fewer mistakes are accepted and off-nights mean more than just moving onto the next one.
Young players are supposed to make mistakes and the best way to learn is from experience. However, you can't afford to be patient when LeBron is on your roster, it's always win-now mode, and perhaps the unfortunate consequence of that was the young group's freedom to grow at their own pace.
- Benyam Kidane (@benyamkidane)