There is no one smoking bullet that doomed the Lakers in the 2021-22 season. A failure as substantial as not making the play-in game — a fate this team seems destined for — does not come as a result of one misstep.
Injuries, though, are going to be the aspect most commonly discussed well past the end of the season. Multiple maladies not only kept LeBron James and Anthony Davis from making an impact on the court consistently, but from helping the team build any sort of chemistry.
Sunday was perhaps a microcosm of the Lakers’ season in that respect. After seeing LeBron and AD both return on Friday against the Pelicans, the team was quickly reduced to just two-thirds of their Big Three with James sidelined with his sprained ankle. Davis spoke after Sunday’s loss about not having James available on Sunday or much of this season.
“We never did all year,” Davis said. “I think us three — us three being me, Bron and Russ — we played 15, 21 games together? We didn’t expect us to only have 21 games together. But it’s just kind of been that year. Either I’m in or he’s in. And the times we do play together, we look really good and then somebody’s out of the lineup. It’s just kind of been that year. It’s been tough not being able to fully reach our potential as far as us three being on the floor and seeing what we really could be.
“With that being said, we also have enough to win basketball games. Even when he don’t play, I don’t play. You saw tonight, we fought extremely hard. We were there. Some costly plays at the end the last four or five minutes that kind of cost us the game. We continue to fight this way, just give ourselves a chance and see what happens.”
As Davis noted, the trio of James, Davis and Russell Westbrook has only played together in 21 games for 393 minutes, an average of just 18.7 minutes per game. The Lakers are 11-10 in those games, but have a negative net rating of -3.6 in those minutes. But lineups of that type have been so sporadic and inconsistent throughout the year that there has been effectively no long stretch of games that have featured the three together.
So while this team has more than proven that their flaws were fatal ones that would have doomed this season to some degree, what’s played out is something pretty close to the worst-case scenario. The injuries not just to James and Davis but to numerous role players has led to a constantly fluctuating rotating and, more notably, starting lineups.
Because of that, there is going to be a “what if” that will always loom over these Lakers.
“I think the biggest that I think about, personally, is what we could have been had we stayed healthy all year,” Davis said. “What could we have been? Of course, you have to figure out the kinks early on but after it takes that 10, 12, 15, whatever amount of games to figure it out, you get close to All-Star, after All-Star and you’re rolling and you kind of rolling. You feel like ‘What could we have been if I was healthy all year, Bron was healthy, K Nunn was healthy?’ You think about those things.
“When we put this team together, it looked really good on paper but we haven’t had a chance to reach that potential with guys being in and out of the lineup. The most frustrating part about this season is not being sure of what we could have been.”
The Lakers were never going to win a title this season, but there was a middle ground between that and missing the play-in game entirely. The silver lining, though, could be the reality check that will come to the organization after flaming out as spectacularly as they have this season, and that as a result, the necessary changes will be made to avoid another season of what-ifs.