I don’t think Frank Vogel went into Friday night’s game trying to lose, but if he was trying to help the Lakers tank, I’m not sure how different the lineup choices he made would have been. Because if bad basketball groupings that don’t make a lot of sense together on paper or in practice were an album, Vogel played all his greatest hits in the Lakers’ 114-111 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.
The defeat dropped the team to 31-46, three games behind the Pelicans for ninth place in the West, a full game behind the Spurs for 10th, and on the verge of missing the play-in entirely.
The bad decisions that led them to this point came in waves. LeBron James and Anthony Davis were back, but they were flanked as starters by the horrible spacing pairing of Dwight Howard and Russell Westbrook, and making matters worse was the inclusion of shooting guard and Vogel security blanket Avery Bradley, who went from getting routine DNP-CDs back to the starting lineup, for some reason. The offense, predictably, looked more clogged than the 405 at rush hour as a result.
Then, when James and Davis went to the bench at the same time in the first quarter, Westbrook was asked to carry the team himself alongside such luminaries as Wenyen Gabriel, DJ Augustin and Malik Monk. This is a strategy that we have seen that Westbrook is no longer capable of spearheading in nearly every opportunity he’s been given to do so all year, and so it was no surprise when it didn’t work.
These are just a few examples of the questionable rotation decisions Vogel made on this night in the first half alone that put the Lakers behind the 8-ball. And all of them could be defended in a vacuum, were this the first night of the season.
Extra length to deal with the Pelicans’ frontline! Avery Bradley to chase around CJ McCollum!
But for all the jokes about “the season starts now,” the season is almost over. We know that stuff like this doesn’t work. We have the tape. We’ve seen it all year. And the Lakers don’t have the margin for error to make up for any mistakes, and certainly not this many in succession on the same night. This roster is too sensitive, too flawed. It needs to be massaged perfectly, not hit repeatedly with a jackhammer of errors.
James and Davis are both still, clearly, great. James ended the game with 38 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists, while Davis looked a bit slower in his first game back, but still beasted his way to 23 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists.
And for all the examples we have of them or their supporting cast not showing up to play this season, the Lakers actually came out with great energy tonight. Their shot selection and execution weren’t great down the stretch, but the Lakers wouldn’t have needed to be perfect in the final few minutes if they hadn’t been put into such poor situations for various stretches of the game that they had essentially zero cushion to survive any extended minutes where they weren’t shooting the lights out.
James will get blasted for his final miss, but the Lakers wouldn’t have required a desperation buzzer-beater just to send this to overtime had they not essentially played the entire first half like a tanking team, or one getting some cardio in for a preseason game.
After a loss to the Pelicans, the Lakers are now a full game behind San Antonio, plus the tiebreaker.— The Athletic NBA (@TheAthleticNBA) April 2, 2022
L.A. would need to finish two games better than the Spurs over the final five games to make the Play-In.
H/T @billoram pic.twitter.com/VW8AUNVs8k
James and Davis’ level of collective stardom can make up for a lot. It can even keep the Lakers close in spite of their lineup decisions. But it can’t fully make up for this many choices like this. Not on a roster this flawed, and certainly not in what was maybe the Lakers’ highest-stakes game of the year. And because the team chose to play it with essentially one hand tied behind their back, they may ultimately miss the play-in.
So if this is how the 2021-22 Lakers season finally ends, then consider this game a fitting ending to a year-long odyssey of self-inflicted wounds.