Tuesday marked the second national TV game against the Phoenix Suns this season for the Lakers and while this one did not feature a fight on the sideline between Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard, it ended in another double-digit loss, this one an 18-point defeat.
At this point, the Lakers hardly resemble anything the front office envisioned them to be two months into the season. Injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis have left their Big Three without a lengthy run of games together yet this year. Injuries and COVID protocols to role players have made the rotation a revolving door of players cycling in and out.
Against the Suns on Tuesday, Talen Horton-Tucker, Wayne Ellington and Isaiah Thomas were the three players not named Westbrook and James to play the most minutes. In the team’s previous meeting in the second contest of the year, it was Carmelo Anthony, Avery Bradley and Kent Bazemore that were the three role players to see the most minutes, a small glimpse into how disjointed the season has been.
But the loss to Phoenix marked the third in a row for the Lakers, who had looked ready to go on a run just a week ago after capturing their third straight win in thrilling fashion against Dallas. Since then, eight Lakers players have entered health and safety protocols — half of them exiting in the days after — and two Lakers coaches have been forced into isolation as well.
As a result, where teams like the Suns and Jazz are surging in December, the Lakers still find themselves at .500 without any real clarity as to whether the roster is good enough to compete, let alone win a title.
“I feel that’s a question you ask me after every game,” James said on Tuesday when asked if he has seen enough of this team to know if they can reach the level of the Suns. “I mean, obviously I don’t know. I don’t think so. We have no idea what this team can be. And when you have Trev(or Ariza), who this is his first or second game back, no K Nunn, I missed a bunch of games, now AD is out, and a bunch of guys are in protocol. Our head coach is out. So how can we really, fully assess what we have when we haven’t been whole? I can’t remember the last time we played the same starting lineup or had the same rotation coming off the bench. It’s been a long time. So it’s hard to assess that.”
There is no sympathy for injuries in the NBA with every team going through them. That’s even more so the case in 2021 when COVID is, once again, wreaking havoc on the NBA.
But that doesn’t change the fact that, through Tuesday’s game against Phoenix, the Lakers are second in the league in games lost due to injury already at 133 spread across 12 different players. Only the Orlando Magic have had more games lost due to injury this season.
“I mean that’s obvious. Everybody knows that, but nobody cares,” Russell Westbrook said when asked if there’s frustration with having players in and out of the lineup. “They don’t want to hear that. That’s just reality, because every game we get asked the same question of ‘hey, can you guys figure it out.’ But everybody obviously knows that we haven’t been able to see what our team can actually be like thus far. But we understand that, and like I just said, our job is to be able to keep our head down, stay locked in on one common goal and that’s at the end of the year just winning a championship and to do that is not going to be easy. It’s not going to be an easy road. And we understand that and have to stay with it and continue to move forward.”
All of this is a storyline all-too-familiar to Lakers fans, who watched a purple and gold team that looked to be one of the best in the league get decimated by injuries through the middle and back-half of last season, culminating in a disappointing playoff exit.
The difference is that the injuries are decimating the team in the first half this year. On one hand, the opening 32 games of the season have varied between wildly frustrating to very impressive with no consistency in-between.
On the other hand, the team still has 50 games to get things right. And once players exit health and safety protocols — and assuming that no one else goes into them — the team will have just two players unavailable. There could be light at the end of the tunnel.
But that means the team is currently in the dark. Tuesday likely won’t be the last time the team has a disappointing performance on a national stage. This current Lakers team, one that is forced into lineups of Isaiah Thomas, Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook on the court at the same time, can not possibly be judged under any sort of microscope in a grand sense.
With each passing day, though, the season ticks closer and closer to the end goal. The team can keep its focus on the end of the year, but last season provided an example to the Lakers that simply being healthy by the end of the year can not be the goal.
This team will need a runway heading into the postseason to get things right. That will require full health, something that feels more like a fantasy idea than a plausible reality to the Lakers this season. Until then, this team can not be rightfully judged...
...IF they get there.