In the six games they have played since the NBA’s restart the Lakers have been one of the NBA’s worst teams. With a 2-4 record, only the Grizzlies, Kings, and Wizards have won fewer games. Though they boast the league’s 3rd best defensive rating during this stretch, they’re last offensively and their -7.1 net rating is 20th out of the 22 teams in the Orlando bubble.
Before the team’s most recent loss to the Pacers, I was asked if I was concerned about the Lakers and my reply was, basically, no:
In the big picture, even after losing to Indy and when taking into account the bad statistical profile they’re carrying since returning to action, my position is still pretty much the same.
The Lakers aren’t playing particularly hard night to night or, really, even minute to minute. So, even if the poor shooting reversed, I’m not sure if it would make too huge a difference in actual results. Maybe they win a game or two more and they probably don’t rank last on offense. But, really, that’s not what is plaguing this team right now.
No, the real issues lie in their effort and commitment over the course of a full game. Beyond the opening night win against the Clippers, this team hasn’t really shown much interest in playing hard. And in a bubble environment where they’re one of the few teams with little at stake during the seeding games, I can understand the lack of focus. Just as I can understand other teams stomping the gas pedal to the floorboard in an attempt to improve their positioning, to say nothing of those teams trying to make the playoffs at all.
The incentive discrepancy is real and this can throw a lot of things out of whack. I mean, the other team that really had nothing to play for once arriving in Orlando is the Bucks and like the Lakers they’re under .500 since the restart (2-3) and their league leading defense has suddenly become sieve-like.1Before the restart the Bucks had a defensive rating of 101.6, that number has dipped to 111.9 in their 5 bubble games. And while the Bucks have had other issues to work through (they just recently had all their players clear quarantine and become available), it’s not like the Lakers are without external issues they’re trying to manage too.
Don’t get me wrong, there are things that make me wonder if the Lakers will simply recapture their top form once the playoffs start.
I’m not so sure they’ll be able to simply flip the switch and start playing hard again just because they have the incentive to do so. I do believe in muscle memory with these sorts of things, but I also believe that after such a long layoff the ability to conjure that higher level out of thin air might be harder than what it would be if the Lakers took a quick hiatus from playing hard in late March before the playoffs came in early April.
Further, I’m not sure how a team that does get extra juice from the crowd — both at home and on the road — is going to fare over the long haul in a fan-less environment. I also think missing Avery Bradley matters, that having to rely on a Dion Waiters while Rondo has been out is a recipe for inconsistency, and that the extra strain on their guard depth is showing up in real ways on both sides of the ball. Add in that they are relying on a crop of shooters who actually can go cold for long stretches and, well….yeah.
These issues are real and I’m not exactly sure how they’ll play out over the course of a scenario that is unprecedented and impossible to plan for. Fact is, no one really knows what these playoffs will be like. And while I do believe it’s easy to project our past experiences of postseason play forward into this new environment, we really will have to see if those trends hold in Orlando.
That said, until proven otherwise, I am going to default to the position that what was true before will likely be true again. Meaning, I’m going to trust LeBron James to be one of the best players of the world. Ditto for Anthony Davis. I’m going to trust Frank Vogel to be prepared and to coach well. And I’m going to trust that the Lakers will be one of the best teams in the league.
Does the six game sample offer me some pause? Do the uncertainties of this type of restart offer more questions than answers? Yes, yes. That said, if you’re asking me to choose between the 63 game sample from October to March or the six game one from when the seeding games started in the bubble, I’m going to take the 63 game one every time and take my chances that I’ll be right in the end. Time will tell.