Wednesday night, against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Lakers lost by 37 points. Their effort was abysmal to the point that their head coach, now in the midst of an 8 game losing streak, called out the loss as “feeling different” — an implication that goes beyond the final margin and speaks more to how hard his team competed.
Kyle Kuzma went even farther, saying they’d (basically) quit:
Kyle Kuzma after 37-point loss to Thunder: "We just flat out gave out, gave up. You could see we gave up basket after basket, we had no resistance on them on the defensive end."
— Bill Oram (@billoram) January 4, 2018
Over the last 10 games the Lakers have a defensive rating of 113.3. Over that span it’s the 2nd worst rating in the league (which is bad enough), but if extrapolated over the course of a full season would be nearly 3 full points worse per 100 possessions than the worst defensive team in the league.
If that sounds bad, it is.
As another comparison point, in the Lakers first 20 games of the year they boasted a defensive rating of 101.6 — good for 6th in the league for that same period — so they’re nearly 12 points worse per 100 possessions worse over their recent stretch than they were during their early season stinginess.
You can chalk this up to several things, of course. A combination of the team overachieving, defenses being ahead of offenses due to a condensed training camp, the league catching up to what the Lakers like to do on that end, playing some really good offensive teams, and injuries have all surely played a role.
But, you’d also have to be blind to not notice that this team effort level on defense has plummetted.
After the team had their much publicized team meeting where players were able to speak candidly and air their grievances about everything from organizational approach to their own individual roles, I wrote the following before the team played the Clippers:
A few details have emerged from this meeting, but those are for another time to discuss. Instead, what I am focusing on is how the team moves forward from this. Before this brutal December schedule, Walton spoke about not wanting his team/players to fracture when facing such a murderer’s row of opponents.
That comment spoke to, I think, an understanding that the combination of this specific roster construction, with so many free agents to be + the outwardly stated goals of this front office to again to turnover the roster next year with (hopefully) multiple max level stars could end up equalling a scenario where guys could end up splintering if the season went south with too many losses piling up.
Well, at 11-22 heading into tonight, this team is at a crossroads. The injuries do not help, but neither does the seemingly random deployment of players — especially Julius Randle — and how that can impact the view of the guys on the floor who are expected to compete for each other and for a coaching staff that is asking them to be selfless and team first.
Heading into tonight, then, I’m worried less about rotations, shot selection, or even Lonzo and Lopez being out. Those things matter, of course, and will have their impact. But I’m more looking at the effort level, the commitment to the schemes, and the attention to detail teams need to win games. The Lakers have not had a lot of that in the last few games and if they are going to get back on track, they’ll need to rediscover that.
(*Narrator Voice*) They have not rediscovered that.
The Lakers have been, in a word, listless. Though the loss to the Thunder was the most obvious example, this team has not played well, or for each other, for most of the last two weeks.
Injuries provide some cover for this, particularly to Lonzo Ball who has been empowered as the on-the-floor culture setter for this team. It’s clear that without him things do not work as well offensively and, for some teams (especially young ones), offensive approach can inspire defensive attentiveness. (You know, the old theory that by involving everyone on O, you get the best out of them on the other end.)
Still, though, it’s troubling that the general drop in how hard this team plays and their attentiveness defensively has fallen to the level it has. Even when accounting for players being out of the lineup and all the other factors I mentioned above. A trademark of this team was how hard they played. That wasn’t a mirage. Walton has cited it several times this year in wins and losses and has actually said earlier in the year they’re close to establishing the culture they want.
So, the fact that this team’s waning effort is so obvious and that it can be chronologically tied to when player discontent became public is not a good sign.
This begs the question, then, is the Lakers well poisoned? Have players crossed a breaking point with their roles/their minutes/lineups/rotations, with the front office plan of luring two max-level free agents, with the understanding that executing that plan means many of them will not be back next year?
It’s impossible to know for sure. Again, the above factors matter and putting all this stuff on a scale to dole out how much each thing accounts for what we’re currently seeing is not realistic. But, I’d be lying if it did not seem like what this team is currently going through didn’t feel like they’ve headed down a certain path; the type of path Walton feared they might when he voiced concerns about them splintering.
That said, there can always be a course correction. Lonzo returning has the potential to have a huge impact on this group, with his infectious style proving to be the first domino that pushes things back in a positive direction. If that’s the case, he’d shoot up my rankings for rookie of the year because it would be clear his value goes beyond individual stats or even wins and losses.
So, maybe the answer to the title of this post is that we just don’t know and that we need more time. But, this being question at all speaks to where this team is now and how far they’ve fallen from the competitive, fun group that Kevin Durant said was going to be a force soon. And if things don’t change on the court with the players rediscovering what Durant saw, one has to wonder if changes in personnel will need to happen to get things back on track.