I am in the 6th grade and it is the first day of my month off from school as part of our “year round” academic calendar. Me and my best friend decided to go play in some sort of riverbed/drainage ditch thing near his house that we were told several times we should not play in.
As we were wont to do, we were running down one incline of this upside down trapezoid ditch and daring to jump over the water that stretched from about halfway across the bed of this this ditch to the other side of it. We did this over and over again because, well, we were 12 years old and there wasn’t any internet and those were the days your parents told you to “go play outside” and that you should “come back when the streetlights come on.”
Anyways, down one side, jump, land. Again and again.
On the last time I did this thing I’d just done a dozen times, I miscounted my steps and as I planted my foot to clear the 6 foot shallow puddle, I stepped on a piece of mossy, wet cement. Rather than leap off that planted leg, I slid on one foot. Sort of like Gumby. I slid and slid until I crashed into the other side of the ditch. Disoriented, I half rolled over and my friend said, “OH MY GOD ARE YOU OKAY? DUDE, YOUR LEG!”
At that moment, I looked at my right leg and I was clearly not okay. My right foot was turned out to the side at an angle it should not be and I was in shock. I did not feel any pain, but that was only temporary. After going to the hospital, I was told that I had a compound fracture in my leg and ankle. I’d also dislocated my growth plate. I was in a cast to the top of my thigh for 8 weeks. So much for my 1-month vacation from school.
Anyways, after I got my cast off I was on crutches for nearly a month after. I had zero strength in my leg and it took me a long time before I felt comfortable walking, much less running or playing sports (which I did a ton before I got hurt). It was months before I made my way back to what I was in those moments before I hit that Gumby slide. It took doctors to fix my leg, two months in a cast, and then another 6-8 weeks of my parents stressing to me I was going to be okay and pushing me to keep doing more, even if I didn’t feel ready.
I was thinking about my broken leg earlier today in relation to the Lakers. You see, the Lakers are sort of broken right now too. They’ve lost 3 of their last 4 games, the last of those 2 losses coming to the Heat and the Wizards (two teams with losing records) in Los Angeles. The Lakers could have won both games had they simply made a couple of plays more or cut out a couple of the self inflicted errors that have become a frequent aspect of their games this season. They didn’t, so they lost.
Of course, there’s context to these losses. The Lakers are not, currently, whole. Anthony Davis is about a week into a an absence that will last at least a month. Dennis Schröder could return later this week, but remains out due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Without those two, the primary playmaking and shot creation burden falls mostly on LeBron and several players who are not equipped to perform this task consistently in an NBA game vs. opponents who care.
Like me when I sat in my cast with my leg throbbing, it won’t be like this forever for these Lakers. Again, Dennis could be back as early as this Friday. AD, health willing, will be back around the middle of March. This team will, hopefully, be whole again and when they are the expectation is that they will regain the form they showed earlier this season. Hopefully.
Here’s the thing, though, to make their way back it will take more than just their current bad health situation to expire. Like me when my cast came off, there will be much work to do before these Lakers resemble the team that they were early in the season. That dominant team, with two top-5 players and all that depth which looked like the clear favorites to repeat as champions.
Because, if we’re being honest, that Lakers team hadn’t really been showing up lately either. Even with AD and Dennis in the lineup, there were too many games where the Lakers looked disinterested, physically tired, mentally drained, or all the above. Their defense would wax and wane, their shooting had began to decline, and they were mostly winning on the strength of their talent, not because of a commitment to playing with energy or by being engaged with doing all the of the little things that help you win. The results were there, but the process was not.
To make it back, then, the Lakers will need a certain commitment to actually getting back. They’ll need to do more than they were doing before their current situation befell them, and by a lot. Their focus on winning defensive possessions, cutting out turnovers, pushing the pace, and playing for each other will need to return. They’ll need to play with joy, with energy, and with the verve of a team hungry to win rather than a team that believes they’re simply expected to by showing up.
Winning in the NBA is incredibly hard. No matter how talented you are, greatness is never truly guaranteed. Teams who achieve that status worked for it and every step of the way they took the measures to make it so. Talent surely helps and is the baseline attribute that is needed to make it happen. These Lakers have that. But the focus on taking every step and doing the right thing way more often than not is another pillar of success. Without it even the most talented teams will fall.
For the Lakers to make it back, then, they can’t just expect things to suddenly turnaround when they have their full complement of players back. It’s going to take a commitment to doing the things that great teams do if they actually want to be great. Just like it took more than me getting my cast off before I was back to running around like the dumb 12 year old I was.