To say that the Los Angeles Lakers struggled to stay healthy this season would be like saying that the Titanic encountered a few bumps on its final voyage: It would be accurate, but also not fully representative of how much went wrong.
The Lakers lost 219 games to injury this season, in a campaign that saw LeBron James suit up for the fewest games of his career (55), with lengthy absences for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and other members of the team as well.
There were very real flaws with the way the Lakers were built this season, but to continue the Titanic analogy, even the most well-constructed roster may not have survived the iceberg this team eventually hit.
“It was just freak accidents and you really can’t blame anyone for,” Lakers guard Josh Hart told reporters at his exit interview last week.
But the Lakers did (apparently) blame someone for their issues staying healthy, firing athletic trainer Marco Nuñez the day after the season ended. Whether that was justified or not, the players certainly seemed to feel their season going down the drain in a swirl of DNPs was mostly bad luck.
“To keep it real short, the season didn’t go as planned,” said Lakers guard Rajon Rondo in a solid candidate for the understatement of the century. “Things just happened as far as injuries and suspensions, everything that was kind of uncontrollable.”
One could argue that the suspensions probably were controllable, but the team’s health was mostly out of the Lakers’ control, and when it didn’t last, their defense fell apart and their offense wasn’t potent enough to pick up the slack.
“It’s kind of hard to gain chemistry throughout an entire year when the best player in the world misses 18 games (James actually missed 27). We never really had cohesion on the court,” Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma put it bluntly, although he thinks the Lakers showed enough to provide optimism for the future.
“For me, I put a lot of things in life in perspective. You could say we had a bad season, we fell short, (but) we had a lot of positive things that we could look at, to see the underlining place where we were at one point in the season,” Kuzma said.
The Lakers did have some flashes of greatness, to be sure, and one that players have repeatedly referenced is the team’s win over the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day that left them in fourth place in the Western Conference. That was also the game that James’ groin gave out, an injury that was a big part of ultimately dooming the team.
But while the Lakers may have never lived up to such promise on a consistent basis, they do feel like the whole thing offered plenty of learning experiences.
“Lonzo and BI, they’re great players. They’re young, and they play hard every possession,” said Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. “Injuries happen, and now they realize ‘I’ve got to take care of my body.’ At a young age you want to just play basketball and not take care of like the nicks and bruises that you have. Now they realize that treatment and taking care of your body is a big part of playing basketball at this level.”
Ball may have missed 35 games, while Ingram missed 30, but Ball does think that he learned some of the things Caldwell-Pope referenced. Ball said the season taught him to “stay strong” and “stay positive,” but that he couldn’t have done so amidst all this without some help.
“There’s a lot of great people here to help me,” Ball said, shouting out Lakers physical therapist Ron Weathers as “a big help” for him specifically.
“I worked with the training staff, and they helped me every day. Obviously LeBron and those guys (helped me),” Ball said. “There’s a lot of people here supporting me, and you know, it sucks. I thought this year we could do some things. Just not with my injury (and) with other injuries. It set us back a lot.
“Hopefully, we won’t get hurt next year.”
For Hart’s part, he learned to just stick to controlling what he can control.
“We knew the scrutiny we were going to be under, no matter if we won or lost, we were going to be talked about the next day,” Hart said. “At the end of the day you can’t control that, you can’t control injuries, you can’t control front office decisions, coach’s decisions. All you can can really control is your mindset, your body language, your ability to go out there and be a professional every day.”
Rondo thinks the team took steps towards those goals, even once the playoffs were out of reach.
“It’s unfortunate how the season went, but I think we finished as professionals, and as men. Looking back, I don’t regret anything,” Rondo said.
And while no one is going to call the Lakers’ season a success, Hart does think the team can still salvage some benefits from it.
“I think that his team and the individuals on it will be stronger from this year,” Hart continued. “It was frustrating how it ended, not making the playoffs and that kind of thing, but we have a longer summer so we can focus on getting better, getting stronger and getting our bodies right.”
That’s not what Lakers fans wanted out of this year when the season set sail, but a lifeboat ride isn’t what Titanic passengers signed up for either. When it’s between that and staring the reality of a watery grave in the face, sometimes you have to take the small positives you can get.
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.