Swanson: What should Lakers’ response be? Run it back

LOS ANGELES — The sting of it stinks.

Getting swept smarts.

Ouch, you know? It hurts, to fall short of the goal, and short of an NBA Finals appearance when you’re so close – but not that close. Not with these Denver Nuggets having arrived and blocked the path forward.

So what’s the appropriate response for the Lakers after dropping a fourth consecutive game on Monday night at Arena, this one a 113-111 season-ender, which, like three of the others, came down to the final moments?

Run it back.

Don’t mess it up; don’t blow it up.

LeBron James, the superstar savant who closed his 20th season by scoring 40 points in 48 minutes, demurred when he was asked about how the Lakers might improve on this season’s output. Because, as he put it, “it’s not like we have a team filled with multi-year guys. I don’t know.”

But they have people who should be multi-year guys. At the trade deadline, they finally found pieces that fit snugly around James and Anthony Davis and who, with the benefit of a training camp and more time together and, yes, the experience of this playoff run, could conceivably narrow the deficit that stood between them and Denver this past week.

Quite possibly, James would love his buddy Kyrie Irving, who was in the building watching Monday, to be suiting up in the building next season? But would he consider retiring if Irving isn’t? He hinted at hanging it up – or considering it, at least – in his postgame comments before spelling it out more succinctly for ESPN’s Dave McMenamin.

“You would walk away?”

“I got to think about it.”

LeBron James to ESPN on his thought process going into the offseason:
Q: When you say you got to think about stuff, what thread should we be pulling on that?
A: “If I want to continue to play.”
Q: As in next year?
A: “Yeah.”
Q: You would walk away?
A: “I got to think about it.”

— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) May 23, 2023

I asked LeBron how he’d evaluate his season. He ended his response with an eyebrow-raising quote…

— Melissa Rohlin (@melissarohlin) May 23, 2023

That existential threat aside, we know how it went when the Lakers were top-heavy with Russell Westbrook’s maximum contract eating up so much salary cap space, they buckled last season and much of this one.

Entering this offseason, the Lakers have just six players on contracts entering next season, including James, Davis, Jarred Vanderbilt, Malik Beasley and Mo Bamba – and $29.6 million in practical cap space, per Spotrac.

After the game Monday, Darvin Ham, the Lakers’ first-year coach, raved about the culture the Nuggets have developed: “They’ve done a phenomenal job, making that a tough place to play, well-balanced roster, very, very well-coached.”

So use them as a blueprint.

Denver didn’t import star power; it let a young talented young core grow together around Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.

The Nuggets didn’t move away from Murray after he sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament. And they didn’t trade Michael Porter Jr. when his early playoff appearances revealed some shortcomings in his game and some suitors started circling. They also didn’t change coaches when they fell short of the Finals again, and again, and again.

They stayed relatively static while player movement dominated. They stayed the course, and now they’re dominating.

“They’re not missing anything,” said Austin Reaves, the Lakers’ 24-year-old undrafted star, who will be a restricted free agent this summer after breaking out during his second NBA season.

The Lakers have sent signals that they intend to re-sign him and 25-year-old Rui Hachimura, another restricted free agent. Good. They should.

And they shouldn’t give up on D’Angelo Russell.

Yes, you and everyone you know are at their wits’ end with the 26-year-old don’t-call-me-a-point-guard after he followed some clutch production in Rounds 1 and 2 with a disastrous first conference finals.

He made you forget all about how good he looked in the backcourt with Reaves by going and averaging 6.3 points per game on 32.3% shooting, including 13.3% against Denver – hardly a performance that’s going to earn him the substantial payday he desired.

But the Lakers can’t afford to lose him and if they let him walk away for nothing, they won’t be able to sign someone of similar value in his place.

In March, Russell expressed a keen interest in extending his stay, because he recognized what this group could be capable of: “Man if we get one training camp under our belt with this group, the sky’s the limit.”

Ham echoed those thoughts Monday.

“There was a belief there that this thing could really work,” the Lakers’ first-year head coach said. “If we got some consistency in terms of people being in the lineup and guys trying to get everything they could on the fly.”

Without much practice time, without that training camp, just through shootaround and film sessions mostly, that group managed to climb all the way from 13th place in the Western Conference standings to, well, to the final four.

“We were definitely trending in the right direction,” Davis said.

Why not make it a new trend, this staying the course business?

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