The Lakers have found their way back to the bottom of the standings. After losing to the Mavs on Sunday and with the suddenly frisky Suns beating the Raptors, the Lakers have dipped to last in the West and now, by percentage points, are in possession of the league’s 3rd worst record. That 10-10 start seems like it was a decade ago.
First, it should be stated clearly: there’s no one thing that is wrong with the Lakers. There’s no single item that, if fixed, turns their season around. They are poor defensively in a variety of ways, are prone to frequent stretches of offensive struggle, have had issues with staying healthy, suffer through general inconsistency, and have a coach who has shown to be somewhat stubborn with (certain types of) lineup decisions. All of these things have impacted how the team’s performed. Changing one thing (besides, maybe, their health) doesn’t suddenly completely change their record.
While some would argue it’s time to “tank” — a topic I’ll have more to say on later — I think it’s more important to instead focus on what mindset the team needs to carry now that the season is clearly slipping away. There may be a desire to try to latch on to a hope of massive improvement through improved play or to try and make a trade which upgrades the roster to being more competitive nightly. There are arguments worth listening to in order to accomplish those things, for sure.
Instead, though, I’d argue that now is actually the time to rededicate to the principals this team has been trying to install since summer league and through training camp. That instead of looking for “fixes”, they need to double down on their core principals. They need to play hard, share the ball on offense, and be attentive and engaged on defense. They need to play with and for each other. They need to try and have fun again.
In the midst of losing, I know this is hard. You can see the frustration on the players faces; you can hear it in the coach’s voice. The thing is, though, when the frustration mounts, it’s always easiest to take shortcuts and to fall back on bad habits. If you’re going to lose anyway, why make that extra defensive rotation or that extra pass to the open man or move the ball onto a teammate as part of the offensive design? Why not just take the ball out of the net, run down on offense, and take the first open shot you see?
More than the mounting losses, it’s the potential of this mindset to take hold that Walton needs to guard against most. Winning in the NBA is hard, but it becomes easier when you not only have the talent, but when that talent is properly directed and acting on good habits born from the foundation of a positive culture. When Walton was first hired, there was talk of him shifting the team’s culture to being based on hard work, competition, and having fun. We saw the fruits of that early in the season when the team came out of the gates winning games and, maybe even more importantly, competing hard to the paint that no deficit seemed permanent.
Maintaining that culture shift is easiest when the results on the court back up what is being preached. Now that the team is back to losing, though, it’s better understood that Walton’s job is not yet done in establishing this shift. And, in some ways, it’s even harder now. No one said it would be easy, though.
So, this is where we are. The Lakers are again bad. The key is, even while the losses mount, can the coaches teach and the players be receptive to the types of good habits that, as their experience and talent levels grow, can be the basis for teams which are no longer bad? The answer to that question might be the most important thing to come out of another tough year.