In a Los Angeles Lakers season where seemingly everything that could go wrong, did go wrong, pinpointing the root of the problem can often be a complicated venture.
The most common factor blamed has been injuries, and fair or not, there is little debating that the Lakers have indeed been victims of bad luck this season, as the team’s most relied upon players have all collectively spent substantial time in street-clothes during the year.
So much so in fact, that several players have recently begun pondering how drastically different this season could have gone if it not had been for the seemingly never-ending strains and bruises, especially because prior to the rash string of ailments, the team had been playing encouraging basketball.
The team’s starting center and soon to be free agent, JaVale McGee, was the latest player to do so as he recently waxed poetic to Kevin Ding of Lakers.com about how good he imagined this group could have been if not had been for his own battle with pneumonia and the other aforementioned injuries:
“It could’ve been amazing,” McGee said of the long-limbed starting lineup of McGee, James, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball that went 13-5. “The way we were running the floor and defending. Pretty unstoppable.”
While “unstoppable” is definitely a stretch, the Lakers were in fact a much better basketball team in the first few months of the season, specifically before McGee was hospitalized with the illness that would sideline him for seven games, and carry lasting impacts on his conditioning until most recently.
Prior to McGee’s departure from the team on December 16th, the Lakers were in possession of the ninth best point differential in the league (+2.5) with only Denver, Oklahoma City and Golden State holding better Western Conference marks, according to Cleaning the Glass.
A big reason for their initial success — as McGee mentioned in his almost nostalgic quote — was the team's defense and transition game, both of which would go on to dip drastically as the season went along.
During that aforementioned stretch, the Lakers sported the 10th-best defense (107.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) and had the highest transition frequency (20.9 percent) in the NBA.
And as anyone who has followed the Lakers even a little this season would expect, those once impressive metrics would emphatically nosedive after injuries to LeBron and others, as well as a handful of Anthony-Davis-sized trade rumors.
Since the New Year, the once 10th-best defense in the league transformed into the 10th-worst (112.3 defensive rating) and the Lakers would also drop from being of the most frequent transition offense spot to fifth (a near four percent dip in the regularity with which the team was able to get out on the break).
The dramatic fall in defense has likely played the most quantifiable role in the team's demise, but their inability to get out and run as often as before has quietly been a real issue.
Besides the pure entertainment value of seeing James and company run a fast-break, the Lakers’ transition game masked what has been a rough half-court offense all season, especially once players began dropping like flies.
Continuing to use the New Year as a benchmark date, the Lakers have since ranked 24th in the league in points scored per 100 half-court plays (92.6) with only actively tanking teams like New York, Phoenix and Cleveland being worse.
While the injuries and the constant shuffling of lineups definitely have played a role in the team’s decline, simply avoiding blaming anything else paves a misleading narrative.
Injuries played a role as well, but they certainly weren’t the only factor in why this team underachieved. Everything from roster construction, coaching, trade rumors and the impact they had on locker-room chemistry are all real pieces of to the 2018-19 Lakers’ burnt blame pie.
Injuries may in fact have been the biggest piece, though, but when combined with every other flawed ingredient, the team’s downfall may have been inevitable. Maybe the Lakers could have survived if not for all the injuries they dealt with, but if they want to truly thrive, they’ll have to dig deeper for other changes to be made aside from hoping for better health.