The Los Angeles Lakers currently sit 4.5 games out of the eighth and final playoff seed in the Western conference, with just 19 games left on the schedule. They’re 2-4 after the All-Star break, with their “playoff push” turning into a playoff moonwalk. Even though all indicators point towards the team failing to make the playoffs — with numerous players commenting on a lack of trust, effort, and cohesion after the team’s most recent loss to the lowly Phoenix Suns — there’s still a chance of them making the playoffs.
I sincerely hope it doesn’t happen. Here’s why.
The hardest and most painful lessons are also the ones that you never forget. They’re necessary for progress and a catalyst for true change. It’s human nature to rationalize mistakes that directly reflect poorly on you, but there’s nothing more sobering than abject failure. This sobering reality is much needed for a Lakers team that has had a veil over its eyes for much of the season and regardless of the injuries, there’s no rationalizing a team with LeBron James on it missing the playoffs.
Such an embarrassing failure would force the front office to acknowledge that their roster construction made up of non-shooting, defensively challenged vets on one-year deals (something they already realized at the trade deadline, to their credit) was a mistake, and that their handling of the Anthony Davis trade saga by not only bidding against themselves but demoralizing the team’s young core in the process was a misstep, as was the tone-deaf message of “they’re not babies” from president of basketball operations Magic Johnson.
If they don’t acknowledge that and change it, it gives Lakers owner Jeannie Buss a clear-sighted view of a stubborn and irrational front office. Regardless of Maginka’s response, this season should also give Buss a reality check on her undying support for Luke Walton, who certainly has some great qualities as a relationship builder but whose inability to learn lessons as he so often preaches after games while repeatedly making the same mistakes (rotation decisions, not holding veterans accountable) undermines his ability to put a team in a position to succeed.
That second part is coming from someone who was an avid Luke supporter, too, but the stark reality is there’s been no progress from him on critical qualities that are needed from a head coach, and that he’s arguably exacerbated many of the issues with the roster rather than being part of the solution to them. Hopefully not making the playoffs removes the same filter from Jeannie’s eyes that this season has removed from mine.
Lastly, there’s the players. We’ve heard all the talk throughout the year about how things are getting better, about how the players want to change, and how something needs to change, and how they’re going to make a playoff push.
But to quote George RR Martin, “words are wind.” The players have the same consistency and focus problems that they’ve had all season, regardless of being on the brink of missing the playoffs, and that’s shown on the defensive end of the floor — to the tune of the fourth-worst defensive rating in the NBA since Lonzo Ball went down. Yes, he’s a tremendous defender, but there’s no excuse for dropping 20 spots in defensive rating as a team from the loss of a perimeter defender.
What that drop does speak to, though, is a lack of consistent effort and commitment, with the understanding that you have to earn every step along the way to get to the mountain top you so desire. It’s a mentality that LeBron has spoken on throughout his career, but his effort and consistency have come into question this year as well, compounded by the most serious injury of his career.
To hammer home the final nail (if the Suns game didn’t do that already), a quote from former Laker and current Clipper Ivica Zubac tells it all.
“When I was with the Lakers, we didn’t have nights like this. Every game was a close game for us but now with the Clippers, this team is really locked in, every possession against every team,” Zubac said, and he’s right. The Lakers have been a rollercoaster all season, and now it’s time for the final drop and for them to get off.
You get what you deserve in this league, and the Lakers most certainly deserve this on every front, especially because it’s clear that losing games and being on the brink of missing the playoffs isn’t enough of an impetus to change.
There has to be a bigger reality check. They have to miss the playoffs.
That being said, there’s more nuance to the players than these broad brush strokes. The Lakers’ young core and new addition Reggie Bullock have shown a propensity to get better under as the pressure and scrutiny have built up. I cannot emphasize this quality’s importance enough when it comes to building a team, and in contrast to the waxing-and-waning approach of the veteran players, the young Lakers’ focus crystallizes exactly which players are the solution and which are the problems who need to be ditched this summer.
It’s critical to address these shortcomings now during this transitional year, because it’s no secret the front office has targeted the summer of 2019 as the true inflection point for this team. They have a chance to learn these lessons now, apply them during the offseason, and use them as a springboard for next season.
Alternately, an astonishing late playoff run would only serve to prop up the rationalizations and paper over this team’s shortcomings, rather than reinforcing these necessary lessons.
What this team and organization needs is the pain and embarrassment that comes from failure, and forces them to stop pointing the finger at others, and look in the mirror.