The Los Angeles Lakers have roughly as good a chance at squeezing into the playoffs as Dwight Howard has at getting a statue outside of Staples Center. And seeing as a decent portion of those healthy players remaining have contracts that don’t go beyond this season, concern that they might operate only in their own interest is well-founded.
Even those under contract beyond the end of this year are still fighting to convince the Lakers that they should remain for the entirety of the LeBron James era. We already saw the front office attempt to trade basically the entire roster for Anthony Davis, and all signs and logic point to them probably trying to do so again this offseason.
With all that as context regarding the current situation, there’s a pretty good chance at least a couple players will operate in their own best interest over the course of the next 18 games rather than continue to abide by the principles that head coach Luke Walton has tried to instill.
After practice on Wednesday, he told reporters he isn’t worried about that (via Lakers.com):
“If individuals start acting like they’re more important than the group then you just take them out of the game. I don’t anticipate that happening with us, but it’s something we’ll keep an eye on.”
If we’re being completely honest, we’ve already seen some of this take place. Yes, the defense has suffered with Lonzo Ball still recovering from a sprained ankle, but the extent of the drop-off with him out can’t be explained away by the mere absence of one player. Defense requires sacrifice and commitment, and is usually the best place to look if you’re trying to find players quitting on a season.
Let’s just say evidence points to a few guys getting ready for their offseason vacations already.
And look, to a certain extent, it’s hard to really hold it against guys whose contracts run out at the end of the year for being focused on their futures in the NBA. Professional athletes have a very finite amount of time before they have to retire and live off everything they made during their playing careers before they turn 35 (and in most cases earlier). This is a risk the Lakers run given the way they’ve built their rosters with one-year deals the last six or seven years.
If the Lakers really want to avoid this concern, they have to do a better job than they’ve done to incentivize players to buy in to the organization, and the only way to really do that is sign players to deals longer than a year or so.
It’ll be interesting to see how Walton handles all this. Yes, he could follow through on his threat to not play anyone he notices selfish play from, but the Lakers currently only have, like, eight healthy players. He can’t bench everyone, and so it will be worth monitoring what he tolerates from whom.
This is yet another aspect of how disappointing this season has become. Heading into this year, the hope was that having to worry about this trend would be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, it’s still very much a current concern, and will remain as such until the Lakers take building a culture more seriously than they have.