Exactly eight months ago, everything went perfectly for the Los Angeles Lakers. The scene that followed is still vivid in every fan’s memory: White confetti scattered all over the floor, surrounding a special and selfless group of players wearing black shirts — the same shirts that commemorated their 17th title in franchise history. In that moment, a lot of hopeful fans, including myself, believed this was a potential dynasty in the making.
That belief turned into heartbreak just eight months later.
Watching the Lakers this season felt like playing a game of Jenga. The team tried to stay still, even if one challenge after another kept hindering them from doing so. They did stand strong for a while, but eventually too many blocks were removed for them to remain upright. The shortened offseason, injuries to their most important players, and COVID health and safety protocols caused the Lakers’ proverbial tower to teeter throughout the season.
The worst part? There were almost no positives to take away from such an awful season, a forgettable year consisting more of disappointing memories than highlights. Years from now, every Lakers fan will remember this injury-riddled season as the year when the Clippers painfully defeated them thrice in the regular season, Danny Green’s crazy revenge game back in Staples (eight irritating threes!) but mostly as one of the biggest “what could have been” scenarios in team history, a year that saw them hold a commanding 2-1 lead over the likely Western Conference Champions in the first round before injuries derailed them.
But the Lakers’ downfall wasn’t just due to a shortened offseason, a lack of on-court chemistry and a shooting-starved offense. The team also made vital decisions before and at the start of the season that eventually caught up to them and also led to this year’s end result, and may have made the rest of the context irrelevant.
The Lakers’ noticeable change of approach to start the season
The reason why many considered last year’s Lakers team one of a kind is because of how they approached that season. Most, if not all, of the players had a chip on their shoulder, seemingly wanting to prove something to the world. It also seemed like every obstacle the team faced brought them closer, which was a delight to see for many fans.
The 2019-20 Lakers started the season 24-4, marching into every game like they wanted to destroy their opponent, all while keeping their heads down and trusting the process of building a championship team.
Meanwhile, this year’s team began their season quite differently, which was understandable given the shortened offseason. The 2020-21 Lakers started the season with a record of 21-7 before Anthony Davis injured his right calf and Achilles. That impressive start got them to second place in the Western Conference standings.
But unlike last season, this year’s group had the right to think they were the best team in the league, because after all, they were the defending champions. However, instead of proving they deserved that status, they acted like they had it right away, choosing to ease into the condensed regular season.
Again, this was somewhat understandable given how short the offseason was, and it even worked for a while, especially at the start of the season. But the games they threw away — or extended longer than they needed to due to lackadaisical effort — eventually bit them at the end of the year.
One doesn’t even just have to look at last season’s victories to see the difference in their collective mentalities. Take both opening night games against the Clippers for example. Yes, the Lakers lost both games, but remember how they approached them. The 2019 Lakers came out firing and played with a sense of desperation, trying to prove they were the best team in LA. They lost, but the effort was clearly there.
Meanwhile, the opposite happened in 2020 after the Lakers’ ring night ceremony. Some of the guys came into the season out of shape, and did not play with the same sense of desperation. Yes, they just won the championship exactly 71 days before tipoff, but it seemed as if they were content with losing on opening night. It would be hard to blame them for taking it easier given their circumstances, but we also have to acknowledge that doing so may have harmed them later on when they didn’t build a habit of playing with that requisite intensity.
Because the Lakers didn’t just take it easy on opening night. This was a recurring theme throughout the season. They were literally just one game away from saving themselves from the play-in tournament. Imagine if they didn’t blow a 19-point lead against the Warriors on MLK day? What if Tobias Harris never got the chance to hit that game-winner last January? What if LeBron James made that one free throw to seal the game at home against the Wizards in February?
There were a ton of missed opportunities because of the way this year’s ball club approached the season. A win or two would have given them at least five days of rest to heal before the playoffs, and perhaps face another (and possibly even a less threatening) opponent. Unfortunately, this was the script of their season, and perhaps another reminder of why easing into the year and messing with the Basketball Gods is never a good idea.
The risk of changing the roster
It’s difficult to fully assess this year’s roster because they were barely complete and healthy all season. James and Davis were only on the floor for 1224 possessions together this season, compared to last season’s 3069. Both superstars are the biggest pieces in the puzzle for the Lakers, and when one is out, there automatically is a huge void. However, even if both James and Davis missed a ton of time, it’s still fair to say that this roster had its share of glaring weaknesses.
Dudley gave the example of putting Booker in the pick and roll to get him that extra foul, as where basketball iq shows up. Dudley also mentioned the shooting has to improve, and LeBron/AD need spacing.— Alex Regla (@AlexmRegla) June 4, 2021
The Lakers retooled their team last offseason by adding more talent to grind out what they knew was going to be a tough campaign. They added Marc Gasol to space the floor and provide playmaking; Montrezl Harrell for interior scoring off the bench, and boldly signed Andre Drummond via the buyout market late in the season to do what he does best — crash the boards.
Key additions like Dennis Schröder and Wesley Matthews were deemed vital players come playoff time, and to hopefully ease at least some of the scoring and playmaking load on James and Davis.
But their performance in the playoffs was inconsistent and mediocre:
The Lakers shot an abysmal 32.1% from the 3-point line in the playoffs. They were the second worst 3-point shooting team in the postseason next to the Washington Wizards. Schröder, Matthews, Kentavious Caldwell Pope (who injured his left knee in Game 3), Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma’s offensive presence weren’t consistent all series.
Whether that was because of fatigue, injuries, lack of on-court chemistry or coaching tactics, the Lakers just couldn’t provide the bare minimum passable offense when it mattered most.
Moreover, it didn’t help that Lakers head coach Frank Vogel used his best adjustment for the center position too late in the series. In Game 6, Vogel inserted James at the five when the Lakers were trailing 71-52 with eight minutes left in the third quarter.
The small-ball unit of James, Markieff Morris, Wesley Matthews, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Schröder was able to cut the lead to 10, but it didn’t matter because time was not on their side.
Vogel has been impressive, and deserved his flowers for last season’s championship, but the defensive-oriented coach tends to adjust his tactics and rotations later than some of his peers. That can be both a good and bad quality, but for this series, Vogel’s adjustments were a little too late.
A season of bad luck
The Lakers did not have a consistent lineup throughout both the regular season and playoffs. During the regular season, the team had to adjust to six different starting lineups rotations due to injuries and Drummond’s arrival. It also didn’t help that they only practiced 17 times (including training camp) before the playoffs.
James and Davis missed a total of 63 games together this season — a far cry from last season’s 13 missed games. If Laker fans knew this would have happened at the start of the season, they would have probably gathered outside of STAPLES Center to protest the rapid return.
Would the Lakers have been in the Western Conference Finals right now if they were healthy? Maybe. Could they have won their 18th championship with this roster? Sadly, we’ll never know. The Lakers’ title defense just wasn’t meant to happen this year because one obstacle after another prevented them from being on the same page. That’s exactly why winning a championship in the NBA today is extremely difficult, and why last season’s championship run feels even more special right now.
Nicole Ganglani is a lifelong Lakers fan and basketball journalist in the Philippines. You can follow her on Twitter at @nicoleganglani.