After back to back road losses on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s day, the Lakers have dropped 7 games in a row. In a vacuum, these losses are pretty understandable. Here’s a list of the teams: Warriors, Blazers, Timberwolves (2x), Grizzlies, Clippers, Rockets.
The Warriors, Rockets, Wolves, and Blazers are currently playoff teams. The Lakers should lose those games. The Grizz and Clippers are bad teams, but sometimes bad teams lose to other bad teams. So, that’s that, right? The Lakers can chalk this up to the schedule and call it a day?
Well, let me clarify, losing games in and of itself is not the biggest deal. Before the season started I thought the Lakers could top out at around 35-37 wins if everything went right. That meant no injuries, the young guys showing improvement in line with their respective ages and draft positions, and the veterans taking to systems that should, in theory, help optimize their games.
Even 35 wins, though, isn’t this huge number. The Lakers have 11 wins now and would need to go 24-32 in their remaining 56 games to get to that point. That doesn’t seem likely at this stage, but, again, I said 35 wins if everything went right. Everything hasn’t. Injuries have again derailed them, with Brook Lopez and Lonzo Ball’s recent ailments sapping them of two important players.
4 out of the 5 games that Lonzo has missed have been straight up unwatchable.
— Laker Film Room (@LakerFilmRoom) January 2, 2018
Beyond the losses, though, Pete’s point above about how the team has looked when losing games may be even more important than the losses themselves.
Of course the losses matter — Luke Walton said as much when he stated that this team played well enough early during the year to establish that this season became about more than just player development and culture shifts; the team showed they could win, so now the expectation was that they win games. But, in the big picture, this team needs to show it’s on a certain trajectory and that can be done without actually racking up a bunch of W’s.
The caveat to all that is that the team remain competitive and play an aesthetically appealing brand of basketball that gets everyone excited and invested in what this team can be. And, of late, they’ve been failing at that in a pretty big way.
Missing Lonzo is an important factor in all this, of course. But, even more than that, is the sense that the players are still playing together and for each other. Because when that is the case, they will foster the teamwork that inspires the fun style of ball which was a staple of their early season success. Without that togetherness, guys are much more susceptible to playing for their own stats or disregarding some of the defensive responsibilities in favor of focusing on what they can get done offensively.
This can create a spiral downward which is difficult to escape — since the only real way out is to win games. But, the only way you win with the talent level the Lakers do is to play unselfishly on offense with buy-in defensively and the only way you get to that point is when you’re fully invested in the direction of the team, your role within it, and that you’ll be rewarded for committing yourself fully.
Beyond the injuries and how those impact the talent level on the floor, the Lakers seem to be lacking these things right now. And down the rabbit hole we go with the losses piling up and the general frustration going with it.
These matter both in the short and the long term, too. We all know the Lakers plan to pursue topflight free agents next summer. That plan will be dependent on selling a vision for the future, a vision which will include this year’s progress as a barometer for where the team can go. The early season success and style of play matters here and we shouldn’t act as though the recent slide is the only data point in how to influence a potential FA’s plans.
However, the team is at critical point where they’ll need to rediscover some of what made them fun and looking like a team on the come sooner than later. Because the longer this lasts, the more this style becomes the habit and what we saw before becomes the outlier performance. Getting Lonzo back should help with this, but if the Lakers are dependent on a rookie PG being the sole reason for how they want to play now and into the future, they may be farther away than what any of us would like to admit.