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The Lakers have perfected the art of the fake comeback

This Lakers team is only ever truly dangerous when their opponent stops trying.

Los Angeles Lakers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Lakers are, in no uncertain terms, a bad basketball team. Amid injuries, underperformance, and general malcontentedness, the Lakers have been a sorry sight to watch unravel this season.

In stark contrast with their preseason superteam expectations and championship aspirations, they are currently 11 games under .500 and have the 23rd ranked point differential in the league (-2.9). In accordance with their negative overall record, the Lakers rank 23rd (-1.4), 27th (-1.8), and 22nd (-0.6) in first, second, and third quarter net rating, respectively.

However, as soon as the fourth quarter starts, the lowly Los Angeles Lakers go from playing like one of the worst teams in basketball to one of its best. In the closing frame, they have the 10th best net rating in the league (0.7). Bizarrely, the Lakers are the only team in that top 10 with a losing record, giving them the unique characteristic of both regularly playing like one of the worst teams in the NBA as well as one of its best within individual games.

It is this characteristic that has made these Lakers both so tantalizing and yet frustrating to root for. Many fans — and professional commentators — have soliloquized along these lines: “Why can’t you bring that late-game spirit to open up games?”

Although I too would love to believe that the Lakers’ poor results solely come down to a matter of early game will, I’ve identified three particular circumstances which set the stage for these hollow theatrics.

1. Lineup Limitations

Giving LeBron just enough shooting and athleticism to exploit the advantages he creates has been the rare bright spot on this otherwise terrible basketball team. The only lineups that are at least able to tread water require the simultaneous deployment of the entire quality supporting cast. For example, the Lakers are beating teams by 6.5 points per 100 possessions when LeBron is flanked by Stanley Johnson and the Arkansan duo of Malik Monk and Austin Reaves.

However, one good lineup isn’t enough to sustain winning basketball over the course of a 48-minute game, let alone a season.

All year long, the Lakers have struggled to find consistent two-way success with any given five-man group. When head coach Frank Vogel has sold out for offense by surrounding LeBron with shooting, the defense evaporates. And even though LeBron can sometimes hold his own as a relatively impressive rim protector for a guy who hadn’t started a game at center in his entire career until this season, the lack of length around him on the perimeter leaves him with an impossibly large defensive load to carry, on top of the gargantuan offensive one he already has (especially in year 19).

When Vogel’s gone big, starting at least one traditional big man beside James, if not two, the Lakers’ halfcourt offense has ground to a halt. Some of that is structural, given the Lakers’ deployment of basketball’s worst shooter (Russell Westbrook) at the position where shooting is most common and necessary (point guard). However, the Lakers’ true bigs, — Dwight Howard and (formerly) DeAndre Jordan — have never been the kind of shooters capable of ameliorating Russ’ shortcomings, and have become the kind of ground-bound bigs ill-equipped to at least vertically space the floor as a lob threat from the dunker spot.

It is this lopsided distribution of good lineups that has been a contributing factor to the Lakers’ uneven level of success between quarters. With only so much winning basketball to apportion, Frank Vogel has often opted to play his best-fitting players around LeBron down the stretch of games.

Though there are certainly things to find fault in with how Vogel has managed the roster or optimized its production, he has at least adhered to a Fizdalian principle of basketball laid out in an early-season episode of Spectrum SportsNet’s Backstage: Lakers.

The inconsistent production amongst members of the team means that closing group of “ballers” often looks different from night to night, though one particular disparity highlights this idea.

Russell Westbrook, who has been benched during the conclusion of some of his worst performances, averages his fewest minutes of any quarter in the fourth. Conversely, Austin Reaves, the clubhouse leader in net rating who finally cracked the starting lineup in the team’s 60th game of the season, averages more minutes in the fourth than he does in any other quarter. In fact, his minutes average actually increases with each successive quarter.

The Lakers are bad, but better in the fourth in part because it’s when their best players have played the most consistently.

2. LeBron is still LeBron

An extrapolation of the first rule, LeBron doesn’t just play more in the fourth quarter than in any other period, he does more for the team down the stretch than in earlier portions of the game. LeBron tends to leave a bit of gas in the tank during a game’s first three periods in order to floor it down the stretch, when he averages more assists while taking on his largest scoring load of any quarter. In the fourth, LeBron’s usage rate jumps from his overall average of 31.9% — already the ninth-highest mark in the league — to 34.5%, a rise that would vault him into fourth if sustained over the entirety of a game.

Much like the way that Chris Paul’s Suns seem to rise to the challenge in clutch situations, the LeBron-led Lakers have been at their best when every decision is delegated to arguably the sport’s greatest ever in-game thinker. When the Lakers were actually good, they never once lost when they entered the fourth quarter with a lead, finishing the 2019-20 regular season and playoffs with a combined 57-0 record in those situations. That unbelievable accomplishment is a testament to that group’s ability to get stops and execute down the stretch, almost entirely through LeBron James. This team lacks the defensive fortitude and depth that made its full-strength predecessors perennial winners, but the key cog at the heart of the machine is still, by his own self-definition, a “crazy a** motherf***er.”

3. The Fourth Quarters are Already as Fake as the Comebacks They Harbor

The most disheartening quality of the fake comebacks isn’t in their ultimate failure, it’s the way in which they lack the ferocity to be taken seriously in the first place. Instead of entering fourth quarters with a lead to protect, as they did more often than not during their title run, the Lakers have increasingly found themselves on the wrong end of a blowout with plenty of time to spare before the final buzzer.

This pattern of late runs attempting to cover up the demerits of a slow start has been particularly pronounced in the Lakers’ three most recent contests. Across those games, the Lakers have scored an average of 17 points per first quarter while allowing over 37. By averaging over a 20-point deficit through a dozen minutes of basketball, the Lakers have effectively forfeited almost immediately after the game’s started.

With a win already in the bag, opponents tend to coast, resting stars and packing it in on the defensive end. Instead of pushing to win by historic margins, their opponents’ eventually repressed effort has contained the average margin of victory to exactly 20, fractions of a point less than what the Lakers have lost just their first quarters by.

The Lakers’ last game, their loss at Minnesota, wholly embraced the spirit of the false comeback. After the Lakers’ first-half deficit ballooned to 25, they eventually cut Minnesota’s lead all the way down to four in the fourth quarter. But instead of overcoming a now scalable lead, the Lakers folded, scoring just 14 more points while allowing 27 as the NBA’s sixth-best offense stomped all over them.

In recent games, the Lakers have been so bad that they’ve barely had to play any real basketball. Their opponents have completely controlled the terms of engagement, and the fun stops as soon as they start trying again.


Takeaways

In reality, almost everything between the Lakers’ opponents’ early-game explosions and seemingly inevitable closing runs is non-competitive, trash basketball that is honestly disrespectful to fans of the Lakers, or anyone who just appreciates basketball in general. What should be a showcase of the sport at its highest level is ultimately a group cardio workout disguised as competition despite the fact that one of the game’s greatest ever is in the middle of the mess.

Therefore, damningly, it is the truth of the third point above that unfortunately undermines some of the veracity of the first two. With inflated offensive averages across so many minutes of garbage time, it’s hard to sift through what is and isn’t real about what we’ve been watching. A lack of belief has eroded whatever fight existed in this team, making it hard to take pleasure in watching this dispirited basketball, and even harder to draw meaningful conclusions from it.

Although LeBron is clearly still a bucket-and-a-half, I would wager that his scoring average wouldn’t be quite as gaudy if the Lakers were consistently in more competitive games. LeBron is the least of their problems, but the Lakers’ non-existent offense without him and lax competition in blowouts have pushed him to score with the greatest frequency of his career since his first tenure in Cleveland — when he was a dozen years younger and surrounded by a similarly impotent offensive infrastructure.

I am less certain of the Lakers’ good lineups’ ability to thrive against high-level opponents on a consistent basis. The constant rotation tinkering has splintered the lineup data and left each group with relatively minuscule sample sizes. Even after accounting for the shooting variance baked into the lesser possession totals, the aforementioned superior group remains dysfunctionally small against any real center. Also, the spacing concerns increase with Anthony Davis hypothetically out there, a lineup machination his injuries and an early-season insistence on starting DeAndre Jordan have mostly elided an opportunity to see.

The hope has died internally, though the external belief remains. The fans at Crypto, née STAPLES seem to believe each and every time the team cuts a 20-point deficit to single digits. Ticket sales are down, but entry is as expensive as ever, a likely factor in the fanbase’s in-arena, vocal commitment to winning moments, even if the circumstances are immeasurably artificial and the performance is fleeting.

The Lakers can use the remainder of the season to develop their young players and suss out which of the other pieces on their roster do and don’t work in sustainable ways next to LeBron. However, Frank Vogel’s unlikely return leaves him with little incentive to do anything other than hopelessly attempt to optimize the still-bleak present.

The Lakers will have a long offseason to try and take out the trash, though it’s hard to see how they have enough left to build a competitive roster once they do so. LeBron’s clock is ticking, and another season of this too little, too late basketball will surely continue to erode whatever is left of Laker fans’ goodwill.

Without any ability to recoup what was lost in the exchange for a brutally underqualified, so-called superstar without also setting two more first round picks ablaze, the Lakers could be just as far from a championship this time next season, and even further in the hole in terms of incoming future assets. So if the front office can’t fix showtime by pulling a rabbit out of a hat this offseason, I hope us fans at least won’t fall for another fake comeback.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.