Pistons: Sadiq Bey, Killian Hayes, Cade Cunningham, Jerami Grant, Isaiah Stewart
Lakers: Russell Westbrook, Talen Horton-Tucker, Avery Bradley, LeBron James, Anthony Davis
Pistons: Isaiah Stewart (probable), Killian Hayes (questionable), Kelly Olynyk (out)
Lakers: LeBron James (questionable), Austin Reaves (out), Trevor Ariza (out), Kendrick Nunn (out)
Friday night was a perfect encapsulation of what it is to root for the 2021-22 Lakers: a heavy enough dose of preternatural brilliance to keep you on the hook, concocting both justifications for the myriad calamities and recovery scenarios, followed, swiftly, by a capitulation that unequivocally makes optimism feel like sheer lunacy.
Having absorbed yet another body blow in Milwaukee, the Lakers rolled into Boston, determined to right the ship against a similarly discombobulated Celtics team. Though still plagued by injury on the wings, LeBron James was back in the mix, joining the usual cast of characters, which now includes Talen Horton-Tucker, who hit the ground sprinting following his own return from injury. Combined with the lingering sting of a ruthless pummeling that they – Anthony Davis, most of all – had suffered at the hands of Giannis Antetokounmpo, we figured that, for a change, neither motivation nor manpower would be a crippling issue. For 12 minutes, we were gloriously right.
Behind an utterly dominant 15 from Anthony Davis – complete with driving dunks, fallaway turnarounds kissed off the top corner of the backboard and a thunderous one-handed oop that he reeled in at the top of the square – a completely-in-control seven (on three shots) from a refreshed and reenergized LeBron, and a dozen (on six shots, and with no turnovers) from Russell Westbrook, Avery Bradley and Malik Monk, the Lakers churned out their most impressive quarter of the season, hanging 38 on the Celtics, while making 62% of their shots and 57% of their 3-pointers, and turning the ball over once. Sure they gave up 30, but if this offense is clicking like that, there are no worries.
It was the stuff that championship dreams are made of. Alas…
At that point, this star-studded team that, a fifth of the way through the regular season, has neither put together a complete effort nor effectively deliver a knockout punch, seemingly began operating under the assumption that the rest of the evening was a formality. They proceeded to casually surrender two quarters in the next three comparable to their own best of the season.
It’s not that singular debacle that renders this team immune to traditional analysis, but rather the accumulation of disappointments – without a single standout showing worthy of the talent on hand – and the sense that this team has no clue as where to find an answer. We can talk all the time about the talent on hand how this team is probably better than its record and how these things take time, but we’re a fifth of the way through the season, without any meaningful justification for optimism.
The 2021-22 Lakers aren’t inherently incapable of being a good team. However, about a month into the season, the 2021-22 Lakers are a bad team. I don’t imagine a great many of will refute that claim, but for anyone requiring statistical support: Despite an hilariously soft schedule to open the season – 12 of 15 at home, at most five tough opponents – seventeen games in, the Lakers rank 25th in the NBA offensive efficiency (105 points/100 possessions), 19th in defensive efficiency (108.9 allowed per 100), and 24th (-3.9) in net rating. Based on Pythagorean Wins, this is a 6-11 team. On the bright side, they’re playing at the NBA’s second fastest pace, just ensure that there’s no shortage of this goodness.
The thinking all season has been that, once the injury and continuity issues were resolved, the Lakers would coalesce into the juggernaut that they were designed to be. The problem, of course, is that we’re not entirely sure what this group is actually supposed to be.
These Lakers are, in theory, a pair of top-six superstars, reenforced by a third star, supported by a crew of veterans, on a championship run. In many cases, the issue with such a roster lies with the supporting cast that’s unable to live up to the standard of the top-end talent. The non-star portion of the Lakers roster has had its stumbles. The fact is, though, that we can also look to the headliners.
Anthony Davis needs to be the foundational kind of superstar that his incredible talent and standing in the league suggest he is. The numbers are there – 23.9 points, on almost 52% from the field and 80% from the free throw line, with more than 10 rebounds and a pair of blocks per game – but the timing leaves something to be desired.
35, 16 and 5 against the Spurs (across two games) is great. As is 29, 18 and 5 against OKC – though it’d be better if it came in a win. 32 and 12 against Charlotte? Excellent. However, when matched up against a man who’s one of his few notional peers, and in the absence of LeBron, he managed just 18 and 9 in 37 minutes, while Giannis was going off for a demoralizing 47 and 15.
Similarly, the only valid reason for the AD we saw in the first quarter in Boston to fall short of 40 points (45 or 50, if we’re being completely honest) is if he’s spending the fourth quarter of a blowout win on the bench. Alas, a jaw-dropping 6-of-9 in the first quarter culminated in 12-of-21, for 31 points, with six rebounds, as the Lakers’ doors were blown off in front of the crowd that enjoys that thing more than any other.
Meanwhile, we’ve got LeBron. LeBron the player remains great. Like genuinely, undeniably, great. Now, he is far more “vincible” than he’s ever been, but a healthy Bron is still more than anyone in the NBA can manage. The problem here is that, by not wanting to babysit a bunch of kids, he’s pushed for roster laden with veterans who’ve not only been around too long for their limitations (or outright flaws) to be massaged with “it’s something to work on”, but are notable for being identified by those limitations, rather than by any discernable upside.
Outside of LeBron, AD, THT and Austin Reeves, the first thing that comes to mind when considering any other member of this team is something that they can’t do, or a shortcoming. It’s not that none of these individuals are talented and capable of contributing to something that’s greater than the sum of their raw skills.
So, what now?
Hopefully a monumental repudiation of these words.
Where you can watch: 3:00 pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet.