The Lakers have not been a good basketball team this season.
On Sunday afternoon, they dropped to a season-worst three games under .500. In doing so, they blew their 11th double-digit lead of the season, the most in the league. They are closer to being out of the playoffs entirely (4.5 games) than in the sixth seed and out of the play-in games (five games). They are 21st in the league in net rating and 23rd in offensive rating.
None of those things are characteristics or traits of a good basketball team.
Then why does the team remain so insistent in their belief that they are, in fact, a good basketball team, even after Sunday’s loss?
Well, context does matter.
Injuries have indeed wreaked havoc on the Lakers. Whether the roster would have ever succeeded, the Lakers likely won’t ever see the originally-intended version of this roster before the trade deadline, barring an abrupt comeback from Kendrick Nunn that seems unlikely.
Those injuries dramatically slowed the acclimation process of LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis and all the role players brought in during the roster overhaul this summer.
All of those excuses are fair, but doesn’t change the fact that the Lakers, to date, have not been a good basketball team. And as the days tick away and the season nears closer and closer to its finale, they are running out of time to make good on the flashes where they do resemble a contender.
Sunday was the latest example of alternating moments of impressive play with head-scratching breakdowns. For three quarters, the LeBron James-less Lakers took it to a Hawks team that came into the contest winners of six straight. Yet, by the final buzzer, Trae Young had 36 points, Atlanta had a victory and the Lakers had their third straight loss to close a road trip where they went 2-4.
That comes on the heels of a game on Friday in which the Lakers dug themselves a 20-point deficit, then nearly came back and won behind a brilliant second half by Westbrook.
“I’m disappointed for these guys,” head coach Frank Vogel said after Sunday’s game. “We’ve played well but we’ve just fallen short. We have to make a few extra plays, a few extra free throws, a few less turnovers, a few more defensive stops to get over the hump. We’re close. We’ve just fallen short the last couple.”
The Lakers season has been filled with the “yeah but” moments. Did they lose their last three games of the road trip? Yeah but they didn’t have James and both games were close. Is the team three games under .500? Yeah but James, Westbrook and Anthony Davis have only played in 16 of the team’s 51 games and for a total of 308 minutes this season.
And those minutes haven’t been great together. If you manipulate the lineup data enough, you can find a light at the end of the tunnel that indicates there’s something in this team that could still become a contender.
Could the Lakers still become a good team? Yeah but they’re running out of time.
“We’re not in a position we want to be in right now and that’s ok,” Westbrook said. “We know what we need to do as a team and just find a way to get over the hump and close games out. That’s all we can do. We can’t worry about what could have happened and what we should have done or where we’re supposed to be. Nobody knows where we’re supposed to be. Everybody has their own opinion of what they think or how they think we’re supposed to be playing but based on a lot of our circumstances, we’ve found ways to battle through it all and we’re still doing that as we speak. We’ll make the best of it and keep our energy positive and find ways to get a win.”
The Lakers have very much continued keeping their energy positive. Despite January having come and (nearly) gone with the Lakers still under .500, their message has remained the same. They believe they’re a good team, they just need to put things together.
Earlier in the season, Davis drew headlines for saying the team was capable of a 10-game win streak. On Sunday, he reiterated that belief.
“I still believe that we have a good team,” Davis said. “We just haven’t been all the way healthy for our team. Bron is now out, I just came back. I think the most frustrating part is that we can’t finish games. We had a lot of games that we had won and teams come back in and beat us. That’s the frustrating part. We’re frustrated right now because we’re supposed to win this game. And it’s self-inflicted mistakes. That’s the frustrating part where we can control those mistakes. Trae hit tough shots, you can’t control that. But the little things – offensive rebounds, the turnovers – you can control those things to give yourself a chance to win a basketball game. That’s the most frustrating part.
“But I still have belief. We’re a good team. No matter what happens in the regular season, we get to the playoffs and we’re a good team. I still believe that and when Bron comes back, we’re going to be an even better team. Like I said, we just have to stay the course, try to go into All-Star break with a nice run and then take that break and come ready and come out the second half of the season rolling.”
The idea of “just get into the playoffs and see what happens” is fine in theory, but the Lakers are flirting with the disaster of not even getting there. After Sunday, they sit in the ninth seed, 2.5 games up on the 10th seed Blazers. They would need to win two games to even get into the playoffs, and then would match-up with the top-seeded Suns that are only a better version of the team that took out the Lakers in the postseason last year.
It’s all theoretical, but much of the Lakers season has been played out in such a manner. In theory, this Lakers team should — and perhaps still could — be a contender. If James, Westbrook and Davis can get time together, they may be able to pair up the little things they’ve figured out along the way to become the contender they envisioned they would be.
James flourished playing small ball. Westbrook has flourished in recent weeks at getting to the rim. Davis has returned and looked every bit the overwhelming athletic force that can impact games on both ends of the court.
But James’ latest injury has already thrown a wrench into those plans. The team is playing it by ear, uncertain of his status moving forward. The result will likely be more games the Lakers won’t be at full strength and likely more games where the postgame is discussing what could still yet be.
On Sunday, it was the unexpected star role player in Malik Monk that had perhaps the most honest assessment of what the Lakers are right now.
“Not enough energy, man,” Monk said of the Lakers shortcomings. “Not enough urgency on both ends. We didn’t respond the way we were supposed to when teams hit us in the mouth. We’re supposed to hit them back and keep our poise and that’s something we didn’t do.
“We don’t have the resiliency yet. We don’t have it yet. That’s what we’ve been struggling with the whole season. We know what we have to do, man. We just have to put it together. And we keep saying the same thing. We just have to go out there and do it.”
Simply put, the Lakers are not a good basketball team. The team believes that will change. But time is starting to run out.