This was the season that the Los Angeles Lakers, coming off four consecutive seasons with less than 30 wins, were supposed to finally show signs of becoming something other than a tanking waste biding time for young players to develop and star free agents to become available. The plan was supposed to go like this: lean on Lonzo Ball to energize the team and fanbase, get Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle to the next level, and finish with a good enough record—hell, maybe even make the playoffs—to become an attractive destination for the likes of Paul George or, in their wildest fucking dreams, LeBron James.
So far Ball has been nothing but enigmatic, and more recently injured. Randle and Ingram are... fine. They’re fine. More encouraging is the unexpected gift the Lakers got in the form of rookie Kyle Kuzma, who fell into their laps as the 27th pick of last year’s draft and has since become the team’s best scorer. Still, there is this: The Lakers are currently 11-26, have lost eight in a row, and are starting to get a particularly worrying stink on them. Let’s go to the postgame quotes following last night’s 37-point loss to the Thunder (from ESPN):
“We gave up,” Kuzma said. “You could see, they got basket after basket, we had no resistance on them on the defensive end and offensive end. When things got tough, we tried to do it individually, and you can’t do that in this league.”
“It felt a little bit like we gave in or we felt sorry for ourselves a little bit, which isn’t who we are as a group,” Walton said of the Lakers, who aside from a six-point double-overtime loss to Houston have lost their other five most recent games by an average of 19.4 points. “I am going to have to check the tape to see why we completely stopped competing out there.”
ESPN also reports that the Lakers had a team meeting last Thursday, in which players aired out their issues about the direction of the team. Whatever progress was made during that meeting doesn’t seem to have stuck.
Does this look like a team any sane superstar would want to join in the summer? Maybe the glamor of the Lakers Franchise is still enough to outweigh objectively bad basketball, but the Lakers are facing the hard truth that every team on a long-term tanking project has to face: It’s hard to get good again. NBA seasons do not exist within a computer simulation, and lottery picks can’t just be plugged into a roster and guaranteed to enjoy steady, sustainable growth. A roster doesn’t build itself and a competitive team doesn’t coalesce out of thin air. It’s hard enough for any team to achieve its winning goals in any given season, and doubly so for one that suddenly wants to flip the switch from “losing on purpose” to “playing good basketball and competing.”
What’s worse for the Lakers is that they don’t really have a good backup plan. Their first-round pick belongs to the Celtics if it falls anywhere between No. 2 and No. 5 in the lottery, and the Sixers get it if it falls at No. 1 or any lower than No. 5. So another tank campaign isn’t an option at all. At this point, the Lakers’ only viable option is to prove that they are a good basketball team by the end of this season. They’ve got 45 games to do it.
Correction: This post originally stated that the Lakers could keep their 2018 first-round pick if it was the No. 1 pick in the draft.