The Lakers have lost eight of their last nine games to fall to 11th in the Western Conference, and eight games below .500. The organization appears to be in a state of ugly collapse, helped along by the distracting, doomed courtship of Anthony Davis. Luke Walton is rumored to be on his way out. LeBron James now places his squad on a tier with the dreaded New York Knicks, the clown-show team that just delivered possibly the most glaring humiliation of his illustrious career:
“It bothers me in the fact we didn’t close the game out, and being the competitor that I am, it bothers me that I didn’t make enough plays down the stretch; it bothers me that I didn’t even get a shot up at the hoop,” James said. “Of course that stuff bothers me, but I mean what’s the difference between [the Knicks’] record and our record? Two teams out of the postseason. So there’s no difference. We have a couple more wins than them, but both teams right now are on the outside looking in, so it’s not much of a difference.”
That comparison understates* the difference between the Lakers and the Knicks—the Lakers have won more than twice as many games as the Knicks, and their point differential on the season is more than four times better, and any one of the four young Lakers the team offered up in combination for Davis (Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart) would be one of the best and most exciting players on the Knicks today. But it’s also true that there’s something uniquely ugly and dispiriting about the way this Lakers season has gone down, a cocktail of dysfunction, betrayal, and disappointment that makes the mundane and goofily hopeful shittiness of the Knicks seem downright charming by comparison. Also, whatever else can be said of the Knicks, it is also true that they have not and will not and cannot suffer the humiliation of being punked by Mario Hezonja.
LeBron James will eat a lot of shit for the way this Lakers season has gone down, in no small part because the two signature moments of their post-break collapse involve him looking like an absolute sucker. There’s more to it than that—the Lakers had a genuinely encouraging back half of last season, with cool young players doing cool things under the stewardship of a cool young coach. Then LeBron came along, and the Lakers followed up his acquisition with a series of bizarre personnel moves described as tailored to LeBron’s needs, and then the team spent the middle part of this season trying to dump those cool young guys that formed their pre-LeBron core, in order to provide LeBron with a second superstar. There’s plenty of shit to be eaten for how this season has gone down, and shadow general manager LeBron deserves to eat a hearty portion of it.
But LeBron the player, when healthy, has mostly delivered. On the season he’s the only regular on the roster with a net rating meaningfully above 0.0; he’s been his usual efficient self as a scorer; he’s rebounded well; his turnover ratio is lower than it’s been since 2013; despite missing 19 games he leads all Lakers in points, rebounds, and assists, and by the end of the season he will also lead them in steals, and will finish no worse than third in blocks. Despite being 34 years old and having played 56,000 NBA minutes, and being the team’s highest-usage player, he is second among all Lakers regulars in true shooting percentage. Even during this late-season swoon, he’s mostly done his thing:
There’s an important part of all the Lakers misery and soul-searching that really hasn’t gotten enough attention, though, and it’s the fact that during the part of the season when the Lakers were healthy and whole, they were very good! They were 19–14 on Christmas Day, and on their way to capturing win number 20 on the road, against the Warriors. From that time forward their season has been shredded to hell by injuries at least as much as it has by trade speculation and combustible team chemistry. They went 6–11 during LeBron’s injury absence, but were a much more respectable 5–7 before Lonzo Ball also went down with an injury. Two of the games they lost before Lonzo’s injury came when Kyle Kuzma was also out. Rajon Rondo, who started opening night for the Lakers, missed 14 games during LeBron’s 17-game absence.
The opening night starting five for Los Angeles—LeBron, Ingram, Rondo, JaVale McGee, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope—has played a grand total of 31 minutes together this season, at least in part due to injury problems. The best regular Lakers lineup by net rating, at plus-15.3 points per hundred possessions—LeBron, McGee, Ball, Kuzma, and Josh Hart—has played together in just 15 games. The most-used Lakers five-man lineup—LeBron, McGee, Ball, Kuzma, and Ingram—has played together in just 18 games this season, for a total of 234 minutes. 117 lineups across the league have played more total games together than Los Angeles’s most used group; the top lineups in basketball have more than three times as many minutes and games. As much as it is true that LeBron’s supporting cast failed to impress and put the team in a tough spot while he was out, it’s also true that basically from Christmas onward the team has been playing with an arm tied behind its back. The Lakers sucked when LeBron was hurt, and since he’s been back everyone else has been hurt, except for guys like Mike Muscala and Alex Caruso.
Point is, there’s an alternate universe where all these various injuries, including two extended absences for Rondo, Lonzo being shut down for the year with a crabmeat ankle, and Brandon Ingram developing a frightening diagnosis of deep vein thrombosis, never happened. In our universe, the Lakers went 6–11 without LeBron; they went 5–9 during the part of the season when Rondo’s second extended absence overlapped with LeBron’s absence and then Lonzo’s; they’ve gone 1–6 while both Lonzo and Ingram have been out. In our universe, Lonzo and Ingram are out for the season, and the Lakers are dead. In the other universe, where everyone’s healthy, the Lakers are probably surging toward 50 wins right now, and a spot in the upper half of the West’s playoff pack.
That universe is certainly more representative of what these Lakers are capable of doing in an NBA season, but our universe has Lakers fans enduring the agony of failure and disappointment and a sixth straight season missing the playoffs. Ours is better!