Injuries are a fickle thing in sports.
On one hand, they’re an obvious inhibitor to team success and knock teams out of routine, forcing sometimes unwelcome changes. On the other hand, though, publicly using them as an excuse is viewed as some form of taboo.
This leads to the Lakers’ current predicament.
The team is beaten up early in the season. Without LeBron James, Trevor Ariza, Talen Horton-Tucker or Kendrick Nunn, they are devoid of wings and ball handlers both. As Darius Soriano put it on Saturday, the team has just enough players left to fill out lineups but not enough for them to be successful ones.
But the Lakers’ performances in recent games are becoming more and more inexcusable, Saturday’s in Portland the glaring example. Already down the previously mentioned quartet, Anthony Davis couldn’t overcome a stomach illness to play more than his opening stint in the first quarter.
The remaining Lakers did everything short of waving a white flag during the game, playing with little effort and mailing it in as the Blazers pulled further and further away. It was an embarrassing effort coming on the heels of a second loss of the season to a hapless Thunder team.
After the game, the Lakers toed the line between blaming injuries and taking onus for a lackluster effort.
“I think for the most part tonight we just didn’t play basketball,” Carmelo Anthony said. “We didn’t go out there and compete. We didn’t play hard. We’ve only played in spurts. Those guys came out hitting on all cylinders... It’s going to be like that. This is part of the game.
“We don’t know who is going to be in there. We can’t control injuries. We can’t control what guys are going through physically. So it is next man up. It sounds cliche, but it is what it is, we’ve still got to be ready to go out there and compete.”
It was an honest assessment of a frustrating performance. The Lakers no-showed against a Blazers team that has been lifeless at times in its own right this season. On Saturday, though, they looked every bit the contender they need to be to keep Damian Lillard from playing his game of “will I or won’t I” with a trade request next summer.
It was entirely predictable that Lillard would explode out of his slump against the Lakers. The two primary defenders of Lillard on the night were Avery Bradley, a player who was cut a day before the start of the season, and Kent Bazemore, a player who continues to struggle mightily defending guards.
But it’s another byproduct of a roster cut apart by injuries and a roster that was already going to need to rely on offensive output to overcome defensive shortcomings. Without the ability to do the former, the latter becomes only more glaring.
Nobody, though, is going to feel sorry for the Lakers and their injury woes, even if it is two seasons running now.
“Nobody really cares if that’s happening,” Russell Westbrook said of the injuries. “Nobody really cares if guys are hurt, guys are not in. Nobody cares. It’s my job as a professional to go out and do what I need to do, and that’s why it’s on me to make that change.”
Westbrook has been front and center of the frustrations, an enigmatic figure how is an easy lightning rod early in this season for Lakers fans. But through the first 10 games, he’s spent just 113 minutes alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Comparatively, the trio of Evan Fournier, Julius Randle and RJ Barrett has played 262 minutes together through 11 games.
In short, the Lakers have hardly been able to find their identity, let alone begin establishing it.
“I don’t think you can,” Carmelo Anthony said. “But it is what it is, man... Some nights you have a full roster, sometimes you don’t. But honestly, we really haven’t had a whole roster the full season. Maybe preseason for one game, but as of yet, we haven’t had all our guys out there.”
It leaves the Lakers looking lost and lifeless on Saturday with no clear path moving forward. James almost certainly won’t be returning for at least multiple more games. Similarly, Horton-Tucker and Nunn’s returns aren’t inevitable and Ariza is still weeks and weeks away at the minimum. Help is not imminently on the way.
Which means the Lakers must look in a mirror if things are going to start turning around. Injuries are an excuse, a rightful one at that, for shortcomings early this season. But there’s still a lot of ground between the amount of leeway those injuries allow and where the Lakers are through 10 games.
A five-game homestand that begins on Monday will offer the purple and gold one more chance to get things headed in the right direction. If it still isn’t clicking after that, then the well of excuses will have fully dried up.