The current version of the Lakers is not the version that will be playing in a week, or, basketball gods willing, a month or two months from now. This is something that we need to remind ourselves of, if not daily, then as frequently as our heads require the reassurance. In a season of flux for all NBA teams, the Lakers have suffered more disjointment1I know this isn’t a real word, but you get my point. than many other teams, particularly those sitting at the top of the western conference. Some of that is self inflicted, some inflected upon them.2The Lakers chose to turn over their roster by half in the offseason and then add two more players on the buyout market, creating some lack of familiarity in the process. The Lakers did not choose to have the shortest turnaround in history for any professional sports league title winner, to have AD suffer achilles/calf injuries, or to have Solomon Hill dive through LeBron’s leg for a loose ball that wasn’t even that loose. But I digress.
The windy road to this point cannot be ignored, but also cannot be overly dwelled upon. This is the crux of the issue facing the team. While the past certainly influences their future, their present is what dictates all. Day by day they must understand what got them into the position they’re in, but, to a certain extent, ignore it all in order to do what is needed to get where they want to go. The ramp up to defending their championship is on, right now, even if the stakes of the regular season cannot replicate the urgency of the playoffs.
This is an important point: urgency cannot be faked. Anthony Davis made a call for playing with more desperation after Wednesday’s loss to the Wizards, but a random game in Washington at the end of a 4 game road trip is not game 3 of a playoff series tied 1-1. And while I understand there are many levels of intensity between those two things, the spirit of the point remains. The core of this team is championship tested and proven, making the pursuit of lesser things feel more trivial. It’s human nature.
The mind is too powerful to trick and will know the difference between a training run and a race with real stakes. To further this analogy, the Lakers don’t have a sea of bodies to chase right now, they’re simply running on a road by themselves. They can push to go harder, but calling on that extra gear requires them to actively seek out that higher level rather than it presenting itself to them organically for them to respond to and meet. This is especially true for a team that has won at the highest level. There’s an inherent confidence that emanates from this team because the title that everyone else seeks out is currently owned by them. Why not feel like you can achieve at that level again? It’d be weird if they didn’t feel sure of themselves.
In saying all that, soon there will be fewer excuses to continue down the path they’re currently jogging. There will be context, for sure, but not excuses. LeBron will be back and will need — like we’ve been seeing with AD — a period of getting used to simply playing again and all that comes with that. Even for a super computer like Bron, there is a boot-up period where things around him will be moving quickly and he will be trying to keep up. But, even as that context shapes their environment, they must start to work on the things that are not at the level they’d like and seek out the form they’ll need when the games do “matter”.
Because, make no mistake, the warning signs are clear as day — at least to this observer. This team can be mistake prone on both sides of the ball. When they start to press offensively, they turn the ball over or force up suboptimal shots. They can go long stretches of not generating good offense at all, suffering scoreless stretches that last far too long. When offenses force them into multiple defensive rotations on possession after possession, they can begin to show cracks and surrender the exact shots the opposition are hunting. On both sides of the ball, the individual decision making of each player on the floor, under more scrutiny, begins to expose that single player’s limitations.
As the saying goes, you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and the current version of the team is putting players on the floor, for key stretches, who are showing they’re more than capable of being that weak link.
There’s reason for optimism this will all change, of course. LeBron’s return will begin to slot players back into right sized roles. His position as the lead decision maker offensively will mean fewer possessions for everyone else to take matters into their own hands. We should see fewer possessions where Drummond tries to isolate after getting the ball in the mid-post, fewer early clock shots from Kuz and Ben McLemore (and maybe less of McLemore in general), fewer possessions where Dennis is the lone shot creator and even fewer than that where THT or Caruso are put into that position at all.
I’m a big believer in player optimization via smaller asks and right sized roles. In this sense, getting LeBron back is like the pawn making it all the way across the board and being promoted to the do-it-all queen. Every other piece is now able to play to their strengths, rather than moving clumsily around the board trying to trap the opponent’s king without the ultimate piece that triangulates it all to achieve what’s sought after.
We’re not playing chess, though. These are people, not pieces on a board who can only move in certain ways or execute certain tasks. Winning at the highest level isn’t just slotting players into the right roles, it’s them understanding those asks, buying into executing them, knowing what is being asked of their teammates as well, and trusting that everyone will do what is needed of them as individuals while also committing to helping each other when it’s their responsibility to do so.
Establishing this trust takes time; it takes reps. Time and reps are what the Lakers have not had very much of this year and with only 10 games left in the regular season, won’t get much of moving forward. And, even with a core group of guys who did it together last year, there’s too many new variables to blindly believe recapturing that form is likely. Possible? Sure. But likely? Not so fast, my friend.
But this is the Lakers lot in life now. Mourning the time lost and the lack of time left is a natural desire. But, the thing about time is that it does not stop going forward while you linger behind worrying about it. There’s a danger of being left behind.
That said, the Lakers, when whole, are so talented and have enough variety of player type and skill sets on this roster to play any style or matchup with (or dictate matchups to) any opponent. The pressure on them is real, but maybe that’s a good thing. Remember, urgency cannot be faked and at some point this team is going to feel that pressure. The hope is that they can respond with the best version of themselves, because if they can, whatever (deserved) anxiousness us outsiders feel right now will feel silly in hindsight.
Getting to the point they can respond that way, however, won’t just happen because it’s supposed to or because we think it should. The work that’s required is real and the steps, though sped up into a condensed timeline, are incremental all the same. This team must recognize the work and attack it with a focus that, for a variety of understandable reasons, has been lacking (for the group as a whole) for most of this season. Summoning that is the first priority. I hope we can see it soon.