On Thursday night, the Lakers played their 62nd game of the season. They lost. It was the seventh time in eight games they’d been defeated. This loss wasn’t particularly close, but the one the other night was, but the one before that wasn’t, but the one before that was and... whatever.
When you lose this much, the details start to be less important.
So, focusing on how the Lakers lost isn’t so important to me. Bad basketball teams lose in a myriad of ways, just like good teams can win with a variety of strategies. The Lakers are the former — there’s really no disputing this — so let’s not lose the forest for the trees.
What stood out to me, then, wasn’t that the Clippers were better or how. It wasn’t the disparity in shooting ability or accuracy. Hell, it wasn’t even the lack of fight the Lakers showed in the thirrd quarter when the Clippers went on their massive run to win the game (this last thing is important, but it’s a topic for another day).
No, what stood out to me was that in the 62nd game of the Lakers’ season, they still haven’t figured out who they are, or how they need to play.
I’ve been blessed to see many great Lakers teams. A hallmark of all of them has been that even if they had a main identity, they also all had at least a couple of different looks that they could use to thrash an opponent.
The Showtime teams earned their nickname because of their dominance and flash in transition, but they’d also kill you in the halfcourt via Kareem/Worthy/Magic post-ups and good ball movement. The Shaq/Kobe teams played with force, using Shaq to bludgeon you within the structure of the Triangle, but Kobe was a lethal perimeter threat whose improvisation and individual shot creation could carry the team for long stretches. The 2019-20 title team led by LeBron and Anthony Davis were a defensive juggernaut who leveraged size at nearly every position to control the paint on both sides of the floor, but were also a lethal transition team that would dominate opponents by getting out on the break when playing “smaller” with AD at center.
This season’s Lakers were hoping to be remembered as one of those great teams. With LeBron, AD, and Russell Westbrook, the idea was that this group would be able to play fast and with force, like a monster truck that had a jetpack attached. They’d have shooting and ball-handling at multiple positions, and would even have a couple of behemoth backup bigs they could turn to in order to play bigger when needed. They too, then, would have multiple looks to stymie opponents and would be able to adapt based on the circumstances of the game.
Of course, none of that has happened.
Injuries have robbed this team of what they could be, for sure. But when I watch them, it’s clear that they don’t yet understand where the best version of them will come from. The result is a seemingly endless cycle of constantly changing players and styles in order to find something to latch onto. Nothing has worked, so the searching continues.
It’s time, however, for that searching to stop.
Yes, the Lakers have a version of their team that is full of responsible veterans who can attempt to mimic some of the stronger aspects of the team Frank Vogel just coached to a title two seasons ago. In Avery Bradley, Trevor Ariza, Dwight Howard, and even Wayne Ellington, the team has guys who will try to execute the preferred drop coverages against teams’ pick and rolls, make the extra rotation, and mostly just play hard using a stable (and somewhat predictable) approach that is fundamentally sound. Add in LeBron and AD who led that group and, well, there’s your formula.
That group, though, is proving to no longer be capable of playing to the level needed. Ariza, already falling off last season in Miami, is even slower and less mobile after offseason surgery. Ellington has not proven to be the shooter he was last season, limiting his overall utility. Dwight’s athleticism is now mostly gone and with it, his mobility is almost entirely sapped. Save for a night here or there where he still has it, teams are targeting him defensively and getting their way. Bradley is the best of this bunch, and can still be useful pressuring the ball defensively, hitting open shots, and moving well off the ball, but he’s a back-end of the rotation player on a good team, not a starter.
On the other end of the spectrum are the players who have big holes in their games and can be much more mistake-prone, but play with energy and motor. Their games are more volatile, and that uncertainty can be frustrating. Whether it’s Russ, Monk, THT, Stanley or Bazemore, the level of productivity and effectiveness is going to fluctuate in ways that aren’t always predictable or follow the logic you’d anticipate based on the game’s factors (matchups on either side of the ball, starting vs. bench, etc). Coaches, more than anything else, crave reliability and predictability, and this group doesn’t offer enough of it.
I understand the conundrum these two choices present. I fully get the desire to mix and match them in hopes that on any given night you can get the best of both worlds. What has been proven, however, is that this isn’t actually going to happen. And while the uncertainty of the second group can frustrate, the things they do provide — motor, hustle, athleticism, and potential for offensive and defensive production at a higher level — makes them the more valuable group overall, and the one that should serve as the style-setters for what this team is going to be night-to-night.
Ultimately, then, the choice is clear now. The search for stability has actually produced the opposite. There’s an embracing of the more chaotic version of this roster that needs to happen. It’s not always going to work. With this team and the talent available, that’s to be understood and baked into the calculus of it all. But it’s also clear that what is being tried now is not working either, and the potential for a higher upside is worth the risks of choosing the less stable path.
You cannot fake belief. You either believe in something, or you don’t. There’s no in-between.
The Lakers are not going to reach the goals they envisioned they could before this season started. At eight games under .500 and with only 20 remaining, this is not a championship contender. No one is more aware of this than the Lakers. It’s clear based on the effort they’re giving — or, in many cases, not giving — particularly when other teams start to impose their will on a game. There is no better example of this than what happened in the third quarter against the Clippers, where the Lakers went from trailing by just 3 points at halftime to getting blasted with a 32-6 run over the first nine minutes of the frame.
Whether or not the team’s collective inability to establish an identity drives this lack of internal belief or is just a factor in it, it’s clearly not helping. So, it’s time to cut out the half-measures. It’s time to commit to something.
It’s obvious that certain people have not been put in the best positions to succeed. The head coach was given a roster that does not fit his style. The flawed-but-talented point guard acquired this offseason has played in too many lineups that disregard spacing and cater to his worst habits on both sides of the ball. Both men are failing in ways that are entirely predictable based on the circumstances.
That said, in the search for multiple looks that could help them win, the Lakers have tried to be too many things. The result has been that they’ve never become one thing at all. And while changing that might not solve all their problems instantly, this team has to start somewhere. Because even if they never become the team they envisioned they could be, it’s not too late to step towards the best version this group that remains can be.