The Lakers lost their 62nd game of the season on Wednesday, making them the worst team in the history of the franchise. What started with a 57 loss campaign in Mike D’Antoni’s final season, has worsened to 61 and now 62 losses in Byron Scott’s first two years as the head man. Remember when so many people thought “it can’t get any worse” after D’Antoni resigned? Those people were wrong.
Boy, were they wrong.
The perceptions of a season are always shaped through the prism of expectations. Championship contenders often deal with an overreaction to any small hiccup which is viewed as potentially disrupting a run to a ring. Lower tiered teams are looked at from the standpoint of hope and marginal improvement. The Lakers, especially this year, were one of those teams. No reasonable fan thought a playoff team would emerge out of the ashes of a 61 loss season. But anywhere between 8-12 win improvement seemed possible, if not likely.
I was one of those people. In a pre-season podcast I mentioned 35 wins as a possibility if everything went right. If things did not go that well, I thought 27 – 29 wins was reasonable. The Vegas over/under of 29.5 wins backed this up. As it stands the Lakers have 16 wins with 4 games left to play. They will not get to 20 wins. They may not win another game at all.
The reasons for my optimism (if you can call 29 win projections optimism) was what looked to be a better team than the one the Lakers put on the floor last year — especially when put into the context of the injuries that team suffered.
I saw Roy Hibbert as a viable defensive presence with some solid (though plodding) offensive skill. Lou Williams would be a nice scorer off the bench. Brandon Bass would be a veteran PF option who would work hard, mentor the young guys, finish inside, and hit some mid-range jumpers.
And then there were the young players. Clarkson was coming off a strong close to his rookie season. Julius Randle missed last year, but would come back with a better understanding of the NBA game and all that physical ability after a summer of rehab. D’Angelo Russell was the 2nd overall pick and, though experiencing growing pains, would show why he was drafted so high.
Those ideals never really fully materialized, though. The young guys have shown how steep a learning curve they are on. The veterans offered some positives, but whether it was Hibbert’s lack of mobility and explosiveness, Lou’s high-ish usage rate and focus on little besides scoring, or Bass being shoehorned into the backup C role (where he did well, all things considered) things have not lined up as hoped.
And then, of course, there has been Byron Scott’s shortcomings on full display. Be it his handling of the young players through heavy media critiques and shuffled roles, his approach to rotations and lineup changes every 20 or so games, the lack of offensive and defensive adjustments, or (ultimately) just not getting through to his team enough to foster the needed execution, he has not been any better than he was in the 61 loss season. There’s an argument he’s actually been worse, considering how he needed to adjust his approach from a mostly veteran team to one filled with so many young players this year.
Lastly, we cannot ignore the Kobe retirement tour and how that has affected the dynamics of the season. While it was always likely this would be his last year, the in-season announcement (when it was strongly implied no such thing would occur) and the resulting transformation of road games into farewell celebrations has blurred the lines of what constituted success. Add to this Kobe’s diminishing value as a contributor to actual wins combined with a usage rate typically associated with a player who produces at a high level and it is just not a very good mix.
So, this season had all the ingredients. A roster of young players whose growing pains impact the ability to win. A group of veterans not good enough to override the young players’ limitations. A coach who leaned heavily on those veterans while, whether intentionally or not, provided a shroud of negativity around the play of his young core. An aged legend who inspired too much deference while not being able to produce at a level which justified it.
When it is all added up, we have the worst team the Lakers have ever put on the floor. In hindsight, maybe we all should have seen this coming. Surely some people did. I, however, hoped for better. Those hopes were misplaced. I know that now. Sadly, we all do.