I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
— Trent Reznor
The Los Angeles Lakers are in the midst of their second losing streak of the season, bringing their record through 14 games to an even 7-7. Their last two opponents, the San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls, were more talented, experienced and have higher aspirations for this season than the Lakers do. Yet, these losses still hurt.
Disappointment in D’Angelo Russell’s hero shot selection at the end against Chicago, the inability to stop Jimmy Butler from getting to the rim, fouling WAY too much — these frustrations bubbled over as the Lakers find themselves in the Dirty Dozen portion of their schedule.
Over the past two years, there have been plenty of frustrating losses, but only to the extent that meaningless games amidst a rudderless team could. Importantly, the pain of losing these games reminded fans what it feels like to lose games with consequences and what it means to root for a team with any expectations at all. What else has this taught us?
It’s ok to criticize the players again
I have found D’Angelo Russell’s start to this season to be a little discouraging. This is a sentiment I would have resisted last year simply because of the circumstances in which D’Angelo was placed. This season, however, Russell has a coach that has empowered him and put in place a modern offensive system to fully utilize his talents. My worry with D’Angelo is extremely mild and carries the usual caveats — he’s still incredibly young, this is the first year he’s been given the reins — and he still has shown enough to keep me hopeful.
Julius Randle, on the contrary, has overachieved my expectations. He has taken the empowerment and modern offensive scheme and combined them with his offseason conditioning to elevate his game in ways I didn’t see coming.
The larger point is this: by eliminating artificial barriers created by generation gaps and pettiness, we can feel comfortable pointing out reasons for concern because it’s an even playing field again. We can compare the young guys to similar players in the league at similar stages in their career and point out the deficiencies. The front office (and opposing front offices) can make the proper assessments instead of evaluating talent in an environment that made Lou Williams and Nick Young look like below average players.
I was wrong about the roster construction and tanking
You can only delay creating a culture so long. One more year of being terrible would solidify bad habits among the young core while creating an environment in which losing didn’t feel as painful as it did against the Bulls. The incentive to tank is about as large as it’s been for the Lakers this year, but the front office in signing veteran free agents and keeping players like Lou Williams decided that enough was enough and it was time to turn the team around.
Due to the incentives to tank and a potentially great draft class entering the NBA after this season, I advocated for another season in which the Lakers would finish with a bottom-three record. Fourteen games in, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. The last thing a franchise should do is create a circumstance by which losses are welcomed over a long period of time, where the fans and players alike become numb to it. Having expectations other than losing a lot, even if they are moderate, heighten the stakes on everything the team does. Every practice, every play, every film session will be conducted with that much more urgency and purpose if there’s an expectation to succeed. Losing close games that should be won are invaluable to a young team because the execution in those high leverage situations can only be improved on by learning the process of winning.
This step in the development is so often overlooked because much of current conventional wisdom draws too neat an arrow from asset collection through tanking and realizing the potential of all those assets. For the same reason that almost all championship teams need to stumble once or twice before reaching their ultimate goal, this Lakers team needed to begin the steps to feel real pain before ultimate glory. I’m feeling the pain, I know more’s coming, and I couldn’t be happier about it.