LOS ANGELES — The 2018-19 season is over for the Lakers, and their last 10 games are one final death rattle. But even with the team officially eliminated from playoff contention — and in all honestly pretty doomed for weeks before that — they seem intent on making their final words a scream rather than a whisper, because the team is frustrated with unfinished business, feeling as if this roster could have been so much more than it was if not for injuries.
Some may disagree with that, more blaming the lack of shooting, or other external factors like trade rumors, but a frustration with bad injury luck has been the consistent message coming from the locker room, both in words and in play over the last two games, contests in which the Lakers’ defense has kicked back in with literally their best consecutive efforts in months.
In weekend games against the Brooklyn Nets and Sacramento Kings — admittedly not the best of opponents, but still — the Lakers averaged a defensive rating of 103.5. That is the first two-game span in which they’ve allowed an average of less than 104 points per 100 possessions since Jan. 13 and 15 against the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers.
This roster had flaws, yes, and the trade deadline affected the team, but they still feel like they could have done more had they not had awful injury luck for most of the season.
“One thing you can’t control is injuries,” said Lakers forward LeBron James. “We talked about in the beginning of the year how our depth would be a huge part of our team. And throughout the whole season, we just have bodies and bodies and bodies and bodies be down.”
The numbers of games lost bare out James’ point. He’s missed 20 of the team’s 73 games. Lonzo Ball will have missed 35 games by the end of the season, and Brandon Ingram will have missed 30. JaVale McGee had a strong season derailed by pneumonia, Tyson Chandler’s body betrayed him and the list of dings and nicks goes on and on.
“It was just hard for us to have any type of rhythm, any type of camaraderie and type of chemistry on the floor when Luke has to play with lineups over and over and over, trying to figure out different scenarios on the court for us to be successful,” James continued. “It’s been challenging for all of us, (and) definitely our coaching staff and not being able to have our full group every single night. And for us as players, we’re just trying to go out and and do the job do it at a high level.”
The Lakers have done that over their last two games, with McGee returning to his pre-pneumonia levels of defensive ability and James squeezing the most he can out of the rest of the roster despite not playing at full health himself as he fights through the remnants of his groin injury as well as a swollen knee.
Every team deals with injuries, yes, but not every team has to try out a 23rd different starting lineup in their 73rd game — as the Lakers did against the Kings with Reggie Bullock dealing with plantar fasciitis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope replacing him — or only gets to play 23 games with their best four players all in the lineup, as the Lakers did with Kyle Kuzma, LeBron James, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram never getting on the court at the same time for nearly long enough.
When a reporter read the latter stat to McGee following the Lakers’ win against the Kings, all he could express was the same resigned disbelief this team has felt about their bad luck all season.
“That’s crazy. That’s a crazy stat. Those are our main guys, so you can’t really blame anything else but the injuries,” McGee said.
The Lakers also went 13-5 with their preferred starting lineup, and so while the season is over and they won’t see that lineup again, the Lakers’ engagement over their last two games would seem to be evidence that this team wants to keep playing even with nothing to play for, just to see what they could have been. Mostly because they’re still wondering themselves how different this year would have been with a bit better fortune.
”Definitely you wonder what could have been, but everybody knows the injuries that we had this year,” McGee said, referencing a post he saw on Instagram detailing how many of their key players missed tons of games. “Nobody can win like that, where you don’t have have consistency and you don’t have your players on the court.”
Across the board, this seems to be a feeling nearly universal to the entire roster, although it ultimately doesn’t matter. The Lakers can wonder all they want, but ultimately they did have these injuries, and there is nothing they can do about it, as best emphasized by the reaction of Rajon Rondo — who has missed 34 games himself — when he was asked if wins like the one against the Kings made him wonder how good this team could have been with better health.
”At times, but it is what it is,” Rondo said.
It is what it is indeed, even if some will always wonder if it could have been more.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.