If the season ended today, the Lakers would teeter on the edge of the cliff, headed for the dangerous Play-In Tournament and all but ready to bow out ever so ungraciously.
And yet: The season isn’t ending today.
The Lakers appear sloppy and alarmingly feeble at times, losing their grip on the ball and leads with some regularity and pushed around by the likes of the Sacramento Kings, who they’ve lost to twice.
And yet: LeBron James missed a dozen games and Anthony Davis is just now returning after missing 17.
Russell Westbrook’s aim at the rim is getting fuzzier, especially from 3-point range, and his decision-making and carelessness is becoming problematic, or at least it seems.
And yet: Russ was just as poor the first few months of last season before he went turbo and carried the Washington Wizards to the playoffs with authority.
Shoveling dirt and insults in the direction of the Lakers has become a sport within the sport this season, with some justification. But folks might be wise to study the big picture, exhale and pump the brakes a bit.
But, unsurprisingly, that’s difficult to do when it comes to an iconic franchise led by a legend who’s playing at a historic level and a team with three future Hall of Famers in the starting lineup and the steep expectations that come with that.
Like, what other team’s fall from grace is more worthy for the basketball world to dissect and discuss and devour? New York’s? Atlanta’s? No, it’s the team in the big market with the ample TV appearances and the championship aspirations.
And speaking of those expectations, that’s a good place to start this conversation about the most polarizing team in the NBA.
The Lakers were designated by those outside and inside the organization as being a title contender, and there’s really no debate about that. LeBron, AD and Russ? A Big Three? You put those players together and hopes rise, as they should.
What’s a championship contender actually? If a team is led by a proven winner and brings a strong No. 2 guy, does that team fit that definition? If so, that means it’s still possible for the Lakers to be such a team if healthy.
And that’s the crucial part: Health. Because the Lakers haven’t been whole for a reasonable stretch this season. A three-week bill of good health in November doesn’t count. The Lakers went 7-10 without Davis. Allow, if you will, the Lakers time to keep their three stars on the floor and massage in the supporting cast … and once that’s done, then take the temperature of the team. If the losing streaks are still coming in bunches, then sure, downgrade the Lakers. If not, then reassess.
There’s still plenty of time left this season for the Lakers to address their multiple flaws, notably their defense which is, in a word, awful. Of course, their best defender missed a month. While Davis alone won’t cure all the issues on defense, he’ll certainly fix a few.
“He just makes our team much more complete, our ability to get into people’s faces (defensively) because we know we got him at the rim,” LeBron said. “Offensively, it attracts another set of eyes off myself, off Russ, off everybody because he’s such a dynamic player.”
Davis will also need to raise his game from where it was before he was injured. He didn’t constantly produce like a top-tier player and was especially dreadful with his deep shooting, connecting on 18% (no typo) from beyond the 3-point line. Again, this was a small sample size; Davis wasn’t afforded the chance to improve and demonstrate that this was merely a temporary blip, and anyway, he’s not a volume shooter from that distance.
“I feel ready,” he said.
Speaking of that, the Lakers aren’t loaded with volume 3-point shooters, which raises another red flag, although it must be mentioned that L.A. couldn’t hit that shot consistently two years ago and won a championship anyway, poking a finger in the eye of the analytics crowd in the process.
Have the Lakers, by virtue of a mediocre start, lost any reasonable chance to finish in the top four and gain homecourt playoff advantage in any round, assuming they make the playoffs? This is certainly possible. The Lakers would need, say, the Jazz or Grizzlies to backspin badly in the next few months. Absent that, the Lakers’ ceiling in the West is the fifth spot. Of course, homecourt advantage can be a bit overrated in the NBA playoffs, especially to a team loaded with veteran players who have been there and done that.
Finally and most importantly, there’s the issue of the elephant residing in the room. That would be Russ and his failure, so far, to instill any confidence in his fit with this team and alongside LeBron.
This is a realistic concern, but not a permanent one … yet. Westbrook’s biggest issue is he cannot play effectively off the ball. In that scenario, he must float and become more of a shooter, which he is not. And when he has the ball, he tends to be sloppy with it, and also takes the ball away from LeBron, where it is much more secure.
Westbrook and coach Frank Vogel need to figure out a way to minimize his flaws and put him in position to maximize his strengths, which are rebounding and attacking the rim. Westbrook would be an All-Star if he suddenly became a center, in other words.
The solution: Reduce his reliance on the ball, but don’t eliminate it. Emphasize the mid-range spots on the floor. Set screens for him so he can attack the rim. And then, hope it works.
Westbrook isn’t a hopeless case, just as he wasn’t last season when the Wizards started 17-32 and Westbrook then went on a tear, with 33 double-doubles after March 1 and finished with 38 triple-doubles to push the Wizards past the Play-In and into the playoffs. He just needs to find that same formula in the second half of this season.
Finally, the Lakers’ big-man situation is poor so far. Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan are mere space-fillers at this stage of their careers, but the Lakers weren’t asking much from them, anyway.
The good news: Carmelo Anthony has been mostly solid, hitting 39% from deep. Malik Monk has had moments where he can contribute with confidence. Stanley Johnson, a late pick-up, might get and deserve reasonable minutes in the rotation. And there’s still a chance the Lakers could add a rotational piece before the deadline or during the buyout period.
This team will still travel as far as LeBron, AD and Westbrook can take it, which of course is the playoffs. And once there, health permitting, the Lakers can change all the discussion that followed them. In the NBA, labels and narratives and proclamations are shattered all the time, and glasses go from being half-empty to half-full.
And this is especially the case for a team bringing LeBron James.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.