Boos were starting to trickle down from the Staples Center crowd as their Los Angeles Lakers as it appeared they were well on their way to yet another blowout loss. The Denver Nuggets were running and shooting the veterans Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka hailed as winners and competitors right off the court.
Luke Walton then assigned guys like JaVale McGee, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Lance Stephenson to the bench in favor of guys who, well, actually competed. Alex Caruso and Jonathan Williams — who’ve both spent the vast majority of this season with the South Bay Lakers — helped ignite a run that brought the Lakers all the way back to within two points of Denver. They very easily could’ve tied the game if not for Josh Hart’s tendinitis-riddled knee.
After the game, both Caruso and Williams said they don’t care who they’re playing with; they’re going to approach the game the only way they know how to.
“Nothing changes (if I get put into the rotation). If I’m out there with J3, Moe, Isaac or if I’m out there with B.I. Kuz, JaVale. I play as hard as I can, space the floor and be ready to shoot when I get the ball. Just be aggressive and guard as hard as I can, rebound and be a good teammate. Those are the things that got me here and those are the things that are going to carry me to the next level,” Caruso told reporters after Wednesday night’s loss.
This is the competition Johnson and Pelinka were talking about at the beginning of the season when they said it would be the foundation of the culture the Lakers were trying to build. Maybe it just so happens they have no idea what that might actually look like.
Williams echoed Caruso’s sentiment.
“I just want to go out there and play hard. Go out there and play with high amounts of energy, cover my defensive assignments and on offense just move the ball around, try to get some offensive rebounds, hook shots, anything around the basket. And just go out there and have fun. I love playing with the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s a great honor to be on the court so I’m just happy to be a part of this program,” Williams said.
Look, obviously neither Caruso or Williams are nearly as talented as those who have been in the rotation all season (though I’d be down for a debate between Caruso and Rajon Rondo). But had those guys who’ve been in the rotation cared nearly as much as those guys who fought and clawed all the way back from deficit created before they got into the game, the Lakers wouldn’t be in the predicament they currently find themselves in.
Still, because we can’t have nice things, Luke Walton was right there to remind everyone that if they play the right way, no one in the rotation has lost their spot for good. He doesn’t anticipate the South Bay Lakers will replace and of the actual ones any time soon.
“Not if we’re playing that way with the group. But if we’re not getting that done, then we’ll continue to find the guys that are playing that way,” Walton said.
It’s still fair to wonder how many chances these rotation players might get. Either they aren’t good (Rondo, for example) or stopped trying months ago (KCP and JaVale, step right up). At some point, the Lakers do have to actually do something to start to formulate a culture rather than just hope it takes care of itself because some guys won a bunch wearing this uniform ages ago.
Caruso, Williams, Hart and Moe Wagner deserve all the praise they’ve received since Wednesday night’s comeback. But the only way to truly reward players for approaching the game the right way is to keep them on the court. They’ve more than enough to deserve at least a few more opportunities to show the front office’s mistakes what actual competition looks like.
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