The Los Angeles Lakers have been going through a rare period of relative success lately. They are 8-3 in their last 11 contests. They went 4-3 on their 7 game Grammy road trip, which doesn't sound particularly impressive until you consider that they were 5-15 on the road prior to that trip. Slowly but surely, the Lakers are beginning to inch towards a .500 mark that nobody could have predicted would be the Lakers' nemesis this year. It isn't earth-shattering progress, but it is a sign that the Lakers are at least on the right track, right? Not really. Not in any meaningful way.
If the Lakers keep playing as they have over the past couple weeks, they might, might make the playoffs, but that's it. The Lakers have not discovered a formula. They haven't discovered an identity. What they've done is play a lot of low quality opponents, and done just enough to win. Even the wins against the good teams have seemed as much a result of the other guys having an off night than anything else. They still haven't looked like a dominant force. They still haven't looked like a cohesive unit. Most importantly, they still lack the single quality that a team in their position should never, ever be without. Stunningly, despite being well under .500 and performing so far below expectations that Congress is disappointed in them, the Lakers have yet to discover any consistent level of urgency to their play.
Last night, the Los Angeles Lakers struggled to beat the worst team in the Western Conference. They turned the ball over too much, shot poorly, and scored a measly 9 points in the 3rd quarter against one of the worst defenses in the league. You could just write it off as a bad night, the kind of game that will happen from time to time, the kind of game that always seems to happen on the first game back from a long road trip. You could easily write the game off ... if not for the fact that last night was nearly identical to the stink bomb they dropped against these same Phoenix Suns not two weeks ago. The similarities between the two games are striking. On Jan 30, the Lakers shot 42.3% from the floor, 29.6% from 3, 63.2% from the foul line, and turned the ball over 19 times. Last night, the Lakers shot 43.4% from the floor, 33.3% from 3, 66.7% from the foul line, and turned the ball over 19 times. Honestly, the only difference between the loss in Phoenix and the win in LA was the Suns chipping in to the cause with 19 turnovers of their own. Having a bad offensive game happens. It even happens against teams that usually struggle to play good defense, like the Suns. But having the exact same bad offensive game against the exact same team twice in two weeks? That reeks of not learning the lessons of your very recent history. That reeks of a team continuing to take an opponent lightly, despite being very recently punished for taking the opponent lightly.
Dwight Howard has normally been the punching bag for any effort related issues this team has, but it is tough to argue with a near 20-20 game, and Kobe Bryant was the main culprit to last night's ineptitude; after a great 1st quarter in which he doled out 6 assists, Kobe took passing to the extreme, blowing several opportunities in which attempting to score would be the easier path in order to try difficult and/or highlight quality assists that ended up in turnovers. When he finally decided to start shooting, the shots he took were somehow ill advised attempts that involved little effort in attempting to create a good shot. We've long banged the drum that how many shots Kobe attempts doesn't matter, it's the type of shot he takes. Last night, Kobe proved the theory in reverse; he only took 8 shots, but the majority of those 8 shots deserved criticism. Still, his shooting wasn't the main problem. The way he repeatedly forced passes after the 1st quarter, including some truly cringe inducing efforts in which the Lakers failed to convert on fast breaks because the Suns knew they could play Kobe to pass the ball.
Kobe's transition to more of a facilitator in recent weeks has been awesome, but not because he's been leading the team in assists. It's been awesome because of how organically Kobe has been able to switch roles to be whatever the team needs of him. Sometimes, the team needs Kobe to score, and the team needs Kobe to be a threat to score all the time. Last night, Kobe took facilitating to the level of farce, and, as evidenced by the shit-eating grin after a couple of his turnovers, he knew what he was doing. That kind of experimentation, that kind of dicking around, has no place on a team struggling just to make the playoffs.
All season long, this Lakers team has lacked urgency, and that lack of urgency has been a team effort. It's not just Dwight's fault. It's not just Kobe's fault. It's not just the coach's fault. It's everybody's fault. The only player who has appeared to display the correct level of urgency for this massively underwhelming team is Steve Nash, not because he's played great (in truth, Steve has been as disappointing on the court as anybody on the team), but because he seems to be the only guy on the team who is appropriately pissed off about how poorly this team is playing. Sure, the Lakers have won more games than they've lost lately, and that is progress in and of itself. But their progress in the win column is the only progress they've made. Based on the evidence provided, the Lakers are not turning things around. They haven't figured things out. They still could do these things, they still do have time.
But if they can't figure out how to play with urgency when they are losing, what hope can we have of them figuring out how to do it when they are winning.