On Jan. 25, the Los Angeles Lakers traveled to Brooklyn to face the Nets and showed a joy that was unusual for them this season.
Their main stars LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook are all healthy-one of only 21 times this season that has happened. It was Davis ’first game since a knee injury. That’s just how James looks in New York City. He was suspended for the team’s November visit to Madison Square Garden, his favorite playground.
In the Nets ’back-to-back possessions, James stole the ball and ran the other way while people murmured in anticipation. They cheered with joy every time James dunked.
After the second, James grinned. He laughed at Michael Strahan, the former NFL star, who was sitting on the courtside, and jogged back to the Lakers seat still smiling.
“The more minutes that we log, we continue to see how dynamic we can be,” James said after the game.
The Lakers are in eighth place in the Western Conference, and the night offers hope. At the time it felt unthinkable that a team built as an undefeated superteam could be stuck in a play-in tournament, but the Lakers have plenty of time to rise in the standings. Many believe they are still dangerous in any playoff situation.
At the time, few expected what would actually happen.
The Lakers were eliminated from playoff contention by the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, even though James is the second -highest point average in his 19 -year career this season. On Friday, James missed the last two games of the season due to a prolonged spinal cord injury that has kept him out of the past three games. The Lakers are likely to finish in 11th place in the Western Conference, a remarkable defeat for a team expected to compete for a championship this season.
This season has been challenging for many teams, as the NBA has tried to return to normal that the coronavirus pandemic is still ongoing and there are high-profile injuries that many teams have suffered. But no team in the league can end the season with as big a gap between expectations and reality as the Lakers did.
“It’s obviously frustrating on a lot of levels,” Westbrook said. “But you can’t do anything about it at this point.”
Westbrook was introduced with superstar fanfare in August, while Rob Pelinka, the Lakers ’president of basketball operations, said he was giving them a chance to win the franchise’s 18th championship. But his arrival came without question.
How, for example, can a player who needs the ball in his hands to be productive fit in with James, one of the best offensive facilitators ever? Would it be wise for the Lakers to age – by signing a dead end of more than 30 veterans – when they are already plagued by health issues that always come with age?
The preseasons don’t always predict the regular season, but the Lakers haven’t won them.
When they stumble at the start of the season, there’s an easy way for the team to explain their situation: It happens. Superstars don’t always jell right away.
The pandemic offers an excuse – it made continuity almost impossible for any team in the first few months of the season.
The pandemic devastation reached their peak during the Omicron wave in November and December, when many players entered the league’s health and safety protocols.
The NBA’s testing system isn’t perfect and James suffers from it-he flew home from Sacramento on a quarantine plane because of a false-positive coronavirus test result before the game against the Kings. It was the 12th game of the Lakers ’first 23 that James missed.
A few weeks later, a coronavirus epidemic spread to the team, even sidelining Lakers Coach Frank Vogel for six games.
Many teams, however, were hit harder than the Lakers, including the Chicago Bulls, which had 10 players on health and safety protocols at some point in December, and had to postpone both games. play.
The injuries provide another explanation for the Lakers ’stumbling blocks. James and Davis missed more than 60 games combined-not an unexpected result, given their recent histories. Davis said he was “disappointed that we didn’t have a chance to have a full team.”
“Not sure how good we are,” he said. “Personally, two bad injuries have held me back for a while. That has only recently become part of the season. As one of the team leaders, especially on the defensive end of the floor where the boys need me being on the outside, cool for me, cool for our team, our organization.
But this season, many teams have been injured.
The Miami Heat lost to Jimmy Butler for nearly a month. The Phoenix Suns lost to Chris Paul for a month. The Los Angeles Clippers spent the entire season without Kawhi Leonard and lost their other star, Paul George, for three months.
While those teams have found ways to adapt and sustain themselves in the playoff conversation, the Lakers have not.
This is in part due to a roster that is thinner than it should be due to the resources dedicated to Westbrook.
To get Westbrook, the Lakers traded their young role players Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma. They refused to sign back Alex Caruso, who became an important defensive piece for the Bulls.
The Lakers defense is one of the lowest third in the NBA this season, as they give up 112.8 points per 100 possession. The only team that gave up more fast-break points per game was Houston.
The Lakers also struggled defensively within the paint, a symptom of their complicated big-man rotation.
During their championship season two years ago, the Lakers used JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard as their main centers, sometimes asking Davis and James to take over the role. This time they brought back Howard, two years old and less effective. They signed DeAndre Jordan, 33, who proved to be beyond his prime again.
They don’t have the assets at the set time to trade to make a move that doesn’t deter them. Westbrook’s contract could be more attractive to other teams next year once he is in his final year, if he selects his player option for the 2022-23 season.
Despite the clarity that the Lakers ’roster isn’t working, it’s clearer that a fix won’t come right away.
They lost to the lowest teams in the league. The best teams beat them too. Young playoff teams like the Grizzlies and Timberwolves have ridiculed them, with Westbrook’s poor shooting a regular target.
“This is the season we haven’t finished,” Lakers forward Carmelo Anthony said. “We have tools. Some things are out of our control. Some things we can control, some things we can’t. We’re not done. We can’t make excuses about it. We’re just not done. . ”
In the past nine years, the Lakers have missed seven times in the playoffs. It was an unthinkable past for a franchise that was once used to competing, if not always winning, championships.
It’s a franchise that hopes adding superstars will save them, and sometimes they do. At this point that equation does not work.