There are a great many reasons why the Los Angeles Lakers were taken out behind the barn and shot by their cross-town foes, the Los Angeles Clippers, last night. In the best of circumstances, the Lakers are not a very talented team, and these are not the best of circumstances. The Clippers, however, are a very good team in their best state, and even without Chris Paul, they have far more top end NBA talent than do the Lakers right now. The Lakers were also playing their 3rd game in four nights. Throw in the added motivation of having lost to this motley crew on opening night, and the Clippers were ready to pounce from the start of the game, and the Lakers were not prepared for it.
But these explanations require a working knowledge of the Lakers, and of basketball. You need to follow along to know just how many Lakers are out injured, how many times the Lakers played this week, how much different the expectations were for the Lakers and the Clippers at the start of the year. There is a much simpler way to illustrate the current plight of the Los Angeles Lakers. All you need to do is take a look at who they had playing at the end of last night's travesty of a basketball game.
The result of last night's contest had already been determined by the end of the 3rd quarter. In truth, the result wasn't much in doubt after 8 or so minutes of game time, but with 5:13 remaining in the 3rd quarter, the Clippers scored the game-winning points, hitting a total of 89 that the Lakers would be unable to surpass despite the 17 minutes remaining in the contest. By the end of the 3rd, the lead was over 40 points, and garbage time was officially on. At the end of a huge blow out like this, both teams will empty the end of their benches and give some playing time to guys who otherwise wouldn't normally see the court. Of the five players the Clippers had on the court at the end of the game, only two of them even played in the contest prior to the fourth quarter, a combined 8 minutes between Darius Morris and Ryan Hollins.
Of the five players the Lakers had on the court at the end of the game, three of them were starters, and a fourth was their 6th man, Nick Young. Every single one of the five players the Lakers played in the final minutes of the game played more minutes in the first 3 quarters than the entire Clippers garbage time lineup played combined.
This was not a fluke. It wasn't an accident. And it wasn't a message. Coach D'Antoni wasn't playing these guys because he wanted to punish them for not bringing the requisite effort earlier in the game. He didn't play them because he wanted to give them more time to figure out how to play together, to help them build up team chemistry. He didn't play them to drive up their trade value. He played them because there was nobody else to play. The Lakers have nine active players right now, and four of them are centers. Unless Mike D'Antoni wants to enact my dream of an all 7-footer lineup, the guys who ended the game on the court had to end the game on the court. There were no other options.
It is perhaps further telling what actually happened in the fourth quarter. As the Clippers ran out the end of their bench and the Lakers ran out three of their four wing players capable of running, the Lakers managed to win the quarter ... by five points. It is risky to read too much into what happens in garbage time, but when you consider the players that both teams had on the court, a five point Laker victory seems about right. Now think about what that means ... it means that something close to the best lineup the Lakers can put on the court right now is only capable of narrowly edging out the five worst players the Clippers have to offer. The lineup that the Lakers had on the court at game's end is the garbage time lineup, and it is also something close to the current crunch time lineup. One of those roles is the one that group holds full time, the other a role it is moonlighting out of necessity. And the garbage time part isn't what is moonlighting.
The Los Angeles Lakers aren't the first team to be down to nine active players in NBA history, and they won't be the last. But their current injury run is both severe and severely targeted. It has targeted almost all of the Lakers' best players (of the five guys out, I'd say at least four of them are among the Lakers top 7 players, and the 5th is (God rest his soul) Steve Nash. More importantly, however, the injury run has targeted perimeter players, and it has even more severely targeted Lakers' ball handlers; all five of the players missing are the Lakers' five best ball-handling options on the roster.
In that context, what has happened to the Lakers over the past few weeks can hardly be called surprising. Expecting anything more than the occasional victory from the team in its current state is utter foolishness. Blowout losses should be (and, in fact, are) the norm. There's a reason why garbage time players are garbage time players. That reason doesn't just disappear when your garbage time players are suddenly forced to start.