On January 25, the Los Angeles Lakers flew to Brooklyn to face the Nets and displayed an unusual joy for them this season.
Their top stars LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook were all healthy – only 21 times this season. It was Davis’ first match since a knee injury. This was James’s only appearance in New York City. He was suspended for traveling to Madison Square Garden, the team’s favourite place to play in November.
Back-to-back over the property of the nets, James stole the ball and ran to the other side as the crowd was babbling in anticipation. They used to cheer every time James drowned.
After another, James smiled. He laughed with former NFL star Michael Strahan, who sat by the side of the court, and walked back to the Lakers’ bench, still smiling.
“The more minutes we log, the more we keep seeing how dynamic we can get,” James said after that game.
The Lakers finished eighth in the Western Conference, and the night offered hope. At the time it was inconceivable that a team with an unbeatable superteam could get stuck in a play-in tournament, but the Lakers had plenty of time to rise in the standings. Many assumed they could still be dangerous in any playoff position.
At the time, few people expected what would actually happen.
The Lakers were eliminated out of the playoff race by the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, even though James had the second-highest point average of his 19-year career this season. On Friday, James was ruled out for the final two games of the season due to an ankle injury that had already ruled him out of the previous three games. The Lakers are likely to finish 11th in the Western Conference, a resounding failure for a team competing for the championship this season.
The season was challenging for many teams, as the NBA attempted to return to normalcy with the coronavirus pandemic and many teams suffering high-profile injuries. But no team in the league will end the season with such a huge gap between expectations and reality like the Lakers.
“It’s obviously disappointing on many levels,” Westbrook said. “But there’s not much you can do about it at the moment.”
Westbrook was introduced to superstar fanfare in August, as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, Rob Pelinka, announced he offered them the chance to win the franchise’s 18th championship. But his arrival did not come without question.
For example, how would a player who needs the ball in his hands fit in productively with James, one of the best offensive facilitators of all time? Was it wise for the Lakers to get older – by signing a group of more than 30 veterans – when they were already plagued by the health issues that often come with age?
Pre-seasons don’t always predict the regular season, but the Lakers don’t win in their own right.
When they faltered at the start of the season, there was an easy way for the team to explain their position: It happens. Superstars don’t always flinch.
The pandemic offered an excuse – it made continuity almost impossible for any team in the first few months of the season.
Epidemic disruptions reached their peak during the Omicron wave in November and December, during which dozens of players entered the league’s health and safety protocols.
The NBA’s testing system was not perfect and James bore the brunt – he flew home from Sacramento on a quarantine plane due to a false positive coronavirus test result before a game against the Kings. It was the 12th of the Lakers’ first 23 games that James missed.
A few weeks later, a coronavirus outbreak broke out in the team, even as Lakers coach Frank Vogel was sidelined for six matches.
However, several teams were hit harder than the Lakers, including the Chicago Bulls, who had 10 players in health and safety protocols at once in December, and had to postpone two games.
Injuries offered another explanation for the Lakers’ stumble. James and Davis missed more than 60 games combined – not an unexpected result, given their recent history. Davis said he was “disappointed that we didn’t get the chance to make the whole team.”
“Not sure how good we could have been,” he said. “Personally, two unfortunate injuries kept me out for a while. He just came as a part of the season. Being one of the team leaders, especially on the defensive end of the floor where people need me, is useless to me, useless to our team, our organisation. ,
But injuries have strangled many teams this season.
The Miami Heat lost Jimmy Butler for almost a month. The Phoenix Suns lost Chris Paul for a month. The Los Angeles Clippers spent all season without Kawhi Leonard and lost their second star, Paul George, for three months.
Although those teams found ways to adapt and keep themselves in playoff talks anyway, the Lakers couldn’t.
This was partly due to a roster that was thinner than it should have been due to resources devoted to Westbrook.
To acquire Westbrook, the Lakers traded youth role-playing players in Kentavius Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma. They declined to re-sign Alex Caruso, who became an important defensive piece for the Bulls.
The Lakers had a defence bottom third In the NBA this season, as they conceded 112.8 points for every 100 possessions. the only team with more fast-break points omitted Houston per game.
The Lakers also struggled to defend inside the paint, a symptom of their complicated big-man rotation.
During their championship season two years earlier, the Lakers used Javelle McGee and Dwight Howard as their primary centres, occasionally asking Davis and James to fill the roles. This season they brought back the two-year-old and less dominant Howard. They signed DeAndre Jordan, 33, who also proved his prime.
They didn’t have assets on the trade deadline so they could move on. Westbrook’s contract will become more lucrative for other teams next year when he is in his final year, assuming they pick up the player for the 2022–23 season.
As it was clear that the Lakers’ roster was not working, it was even more apparent that there would be no fix any time soon.
They were losing to the league’s lower-end teams. Even the best teams were beating them too. With youth playoff teams like the Grizzlies and Timberwolves making fun of them, Westbrook’s poor shooting was a regular target.
“This was the season we didn’t finish it,” said Lakers forward Carmelo Anthony. “We had the tools. Some things were out of our control. Some things we could control, some things we couldn’t control. We didn’t. We can’t make excuses about it. We got it done. Did not do.“
The Lakers have missed the playoffs seven times in the past nine years. It’s a previously unimaginable stretch for a franchise that was once used to competing, if not always winning, championships.
It’s a franchise that hopes adding superstars will save them, and sometimes they do. That equation didn’t work this season.
Credit: Darik News