The Lakers have a tough task to qualify for the postseason in a stacked Western Conference. While the biggest problem that most observers have identified is a lack of talent relative to the other teams this side of the Mississippi, LeBron James has settled on another issue: continuity, or lack thereof.
The Lakers return only six players from last year’s roster, one of whom didn’t play a single minute and another one who didn’t join the team until March. Only three players remain from the 2020-21 Lakers, and the third of those — Dennis Schröder — spent the intervening year outside of Los Angeles.
As James told Spectrum SportsNet following the team’s final preseason game against Sacramento, the Lakers are behind the eight-ball compared to their peers in the West, and as a result, can’t waste any days:
“I like the way our team is constructed, but we have to continue to work because a lot of the Western Conference teams, a lot of the NBA teams right now, have been together for a couple years, a few years. and we haven't. So we can't have an opportunity to not get better on a day-to-day basis. We have to always understand how important each day is.
“You look at the top teams in the West, you got the Clippers, and you got Phoenix, you got Denver, and that’s just to name a few of the teams that’s gonna come out and be ready to go right from the jump because of the chemistry they’ve had for quite a while now. We’re one of the teams that has to continue to learn on the fly and not waste a day.”
"I like the way our team is constructed, but we have to continue to work." - LeBron James shares his takeaways from the preseason. pic.twitter.com/CqstUeN6Xy— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) October 15, 2022
Now, objectively, James is correct. The Clippers returned every player but one from last year’s rotation and still have nine members of the squad that advanced to the Western Conference Finals in 2021. Phoenix’s core of Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, and Mikal Bridges has been together since 2018, and even Chris Paul is entering year three with the team. In Denver, Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray have played together since 2016.
Meanwhile, James just started a preseason contest next to two guards he’s never played a regular-season game with and a center who he’s been teammates with for all of seven games. By making it to his second consecutive season with the purple and gold, Austin Reaves has practically entered BFF status with LeBron.
But James ignores a critical piece of context when acknowledging his team’s lack of continuity: he was one who pushed for the Lakers to trade three rotation players for Anthony Davis in 2019, and then another three for Russell Westbrook in 2021. James then signed off on an aging, borderline decrepit, roster in the last offseason, and truthfully, the Lakers are better off to be without the majority of those players.
So yes, the Lakers trail the majority of Western Conference contenders by a large margin in terms of continuity, but that didn’t just happen by accident. Decisions that James himself had a large hand in helped create this situation, and now he’ll have to carry a largely new cast of teammates through the early part of the season.
The good news is that the Lakers only had six returning players in 2019-20 (and a new coach, for whatever that’s worth), and things turned out okay that year. The team had a surprisingly soft schedule to start that season, however, as the new roster built chemistry. This time around, the Lakers have a murderer’s row of opponents to begin the year, so the players will really have to adhere to Darvin Ham’s credo of “wisdom and lessons” if the “wins and losses” ledger isn’t so pretty.
All this is to say that the Lakers really can’t waste any time. Regardless of how they ended up with a shiny new roster for the second year running, this is their fate, and the only way to catch up to the rest of the West is to get better every single day, whether that’s in practice, walk throughs, or actual games. It seems like the Lakers fell short of that goal over the end of the preseason; they can’t afford to so once the games really count.