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3 takeaways from a season-ending loss

The Lakers have (at least) one more game left in the 2023 NBA playoffs, but after going down 0-3 to the Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals, that is going to feel like extended garbage time.

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Three Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The 2022-23 Los Angeles Lakers had a hell of a run, but it all-but-officially ended with their 119-108 loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals on Saturday night.

149 have “tried” — to varying degrees — but no team in NBA history has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in the NBA playoffs. LeBron James has pulled off the seemingly impossible before, but Denver just appears to be the better team here, and the Lakers look cooked.

For those of you with the appetite for more Lakers content even on a night like tonight, first of all, I and this whole blog appreciate you. Secondly, here are three takeaways from a dispiriting defeat.

Note: These are all going to focus on the Lakers, but I don’t want that to come across as not giving the Nuggets credit. They have been excellent, and have kicked L.A.’s collective asses when it’s mattered most. This is just a Lakers site, so we’re going to focus mostly on the purple and gold, but congrats to Denver on earning their franchise’s first Finals berth this week and best of luck to them moving forward. Special shoutout to 2020 Lakers champion Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who has proven he’s currently better than any of the combination of players the Lakers have now used two first-round picks to swap his contract slot for.

Anyway, on to takeaways.

D’Angelo Russell may have just Schröder’d himself

Two postseasons ago, Dennis Schröder had such a brutal series as the Lakers lost to the Phoenix Suns in the first round that he ended up being forced to take the mid-level exception from the Boston Celtics after turning down an $84 million extension offer from the Lakers at midseason.

Through three games of the Western Conference Finals, D’Angelo Russell has been worse than that.

This is not hyperbole. In 2021, Schröder averaged 14.3 points per game on 28-70 (40%) shooting from the field. In three games of the Lakers’ current series, Russell has shot 8-27 (29.6%) while scoring just 21 points total in 79 minutes of playing time. Coming into Game 3, the team was never worse than when he played by both net rating or plus-minus, and after putting up a -12 in Game 3, it’s unlikely that’s going to change much when the NBA’s official numbers update overnight.

I say this not to pile on Russell, who is who he’s always been, and has mostly just missed while doing his typical brand of gliding gunning that looks atrocious when it doesn’t work. As I’ve said and written all postseason, to me he is somewhere between a 16 and 82-game player, not solely a regular-season minutes-sopper, but also far from a guy a team can rely on every night when the lights are brightest.

The reason I bring this up is that not only have the Nuggets accomplished their goal of humiliating Russell publicly and making him unplayable in the process, but also because the door is now open for a scenario where the Lakers just let Russell walk entirely.

From a cap perspective, this would (arguably) be foolish. The Lakers can’t sign a free agent for the same amount they can exceed the cap to re-sign Russell by virtue of having his Bird Rights. But as we saw in 2021, when the Lakers let Schröder walk for nothing in the same scenario despite him not having a very rich market — and it’s hard to see Russell’s being much frothier when this summer’s game of multimillionaire musical chairs ends — this team has already shown multiple times that it’s not necessarily going to pay guys just to keep the value of having multiple mid-sized contracts to use in trades. And with Rui Hachimura and Austin Reaves both playing themselves into big restricted free agency paydays (that the Lakers want to match) while Russell wilts in winning time, it’s suddenly a lot easier to envision a scenario where he exits Los Angeles a second time.

Lock Jarred Vanderbilt in the gym with Phil Handy this summer

I love Jarred Vanderbilt’s game. 6’9 forwards with 7’1 wingspans who can defend players ranging from Stephen Curry to Brandon Ingram are hard to find, and a single bad playoff series in a particularly bad matchup for him against Denver doesn’t take that away. His $4.6 million contract for next season is one of the best bargains in the league, and the Lakers aren’t going to find a better player for that money. This is not an argument to ship him out.

But woooooooooooo, boy, was that a bad series that exposed some of the shortcoming in the Vandolorian’s game. The Nuggets disrespected his shot to a nearly comical degree, and suffocated the paint whenever he was on the floor. Vanderbilt’s inability to make corner threes consistently, catch all that well on the move as a cutter or finish at the rim are real weak points, to say the least.

At just age 24 and only four years into his career, there is plenty of time for him to address those weaknesses! The Lakers also have one of the most renowned player development guys in the business in Phil Handy on their coaching staff, a man who already worked wonders in his limited time with Rui Hachimura. Hachimura has always been a better offensive player than Vanderbilt, so don’t expect the sort of leap we saw from Rui, but it’s not unreasonable to hope that after this kind of poor series, a player with Vando’s work ethic and competitiveness could come back with at least one or two reliable offensive weapons in his arsenal to make him more playable in the playoffs.

If he can, not only will he be an incredibly valuable piece of the puzzle for next year’s Lakers, but he could set himself up for a Reaves or Hachimura-esque raise next summer. I hope we get to see it.

It turns out playing must-win games since February takes a toll

This is not meant as an excuse. As all Lakers fans are familiar with, one of the skills every single title-winning team ever is the ability to stay healthy and fresh enough to win, in addition to talent, drive and roster cohesion. The Nuggets looked nearly as exhausted as the Lakers at points in this game, and they continued to step up and make plays every time they needed to in order to bury Los Angeles. They were the better team, full stop.

But with all that out of the way, it’s worth remembering that these Lakers essentially started their playoff run in February when they made the trades to turn this into an NBA-caliber supporting cast around LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who are both dealing with active injuries in their respective feet and have shown admirable heart in playing through them to the best of their abilities. Austin Reaves also deserves credit for somehow rediscovering his legs this series after losing them last round.

However, it turns out starting the season 2-10, assembling almost an entirely new roster at the trade deadline, and then having to play nearly must-win games for months just to make the play-in tournament takes a toll, as does having to ride your stars as hard as the Lakers did in the opening two rounds. Davis is hurt, LeBron is old and hurt, and both just look like their tanks are empty. Whether at this stage in their careers they can even be expected to maintain their legs throughout a full playoff run moving forward is surely a question the front office will have to ask themselves this summer, but regardless of the answers there, for this year and under these circumstances, it’s clear they’re just out of gas. From every LeBron three to every time Davis just stood around on offense, it was plain to anyone watching that these guys just don’t have more than fumes left.

To make the Western Conference Finals under such conditions is still an achievement, and I still appreciate the spirit this team showed in never letting go of the rope despite at one point facing just 0.3% odds to even make the postseason. It was a hell of a run, and while we only truly celebrate championship banners here in Los Angeles, this group has at least earned our respect, and a whole training camp to see what they can do with a full season together, regardless of how Monday’s Game 4 turns out.

See you all here for that one, for maybe the last time this season.

You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.

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