The Los Angeles Lakers started the season in an auspicious manner, knocking off the Houston Rockets who are currently sitting in third place in the Western Conference standings. By the end of November, they had a record of 10-10 and even hardened NBA experts were talking about the Lakers in glowing terms as though they were legitimately in the hunt for an unexpected playoff spot. Head coach Luke Walton could do no wrong, and it seemed as though the team was competing for a victory every night regardless of the opponent.
It all came crashing down in December. It started with injuries to D’Angelo Russell and Nick Young and quickly spread to Julius Randle, Larry Nance, Jr., Tarik Black, and Jose Calderon. The team’s fortunes sank, their confidence waned, and the Lakers lost 15 of their next 17 games while spiraling towards the bottom of the NBA standings. Presently, the Lakers have lost 20 of their last 25 games.
With the dawn of a new year, the team’s fortunes started to turn again, this time in a positive direction. Everyone was back and healthy except for Nance, and in his absence Thomas Robinson was filling in admirably. Entering a recent game against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Lakers had won three of their last four games, but more important than wins or losses, the real cause for excitement was the sudden improved and more consistent play of Randle and Russell.
Russell and Randle have been maddening in their inconsistency for most of the last two years. For sure they have shown glimpses of what they might become, but then they fall back into the same old bad habits and play with little energy and focus.
When January started, there were signs that things were finally clicking, that Russell and Randle were in the midst of an on-court growth spurt which would be a very welcome development. It is one thing when a win is triggered by Lou Williams, Nick Young, and Luol Deng, because it means nothing for the future. But when Russell, Randle, and Brandon Ingram lead the team to a win, that is another matter entirely.
Russell was showing patience and letting the game come to him. He was leading the offense in a calm, collected and organized manner, and as a result, his assists and steals went up, and his turnovers went down. Whether his outside shot was falling or not, he was getting to the rim and to the foul line to score points. In short, leading up to the Portland game, Russell’s overall performance, including his defense, has looked better than at any other time in his brief career.
Randle was scoring and dishing out assists at a more consistent clip. In a recent game against the Orlando Magic, he hit multiple mid-range jump shots and a three-pointer to end the first quarter, which is a great sign. He was finishing with his right hand – another weakness from last year – and becoming one of the best passers from the power forward position in the league. He still needs work as a defender but had critical blocks in key moments of recent contests. Randle’s ability to grab a rebound and push the ball up court on his own continues to impress.
Then, as though air were escaping from a balloon, the Lakers disappeared in the second half of their game against the Blazers, and they were blown out at the end. The team scored a shocking 30 points the entire second half, after coming out flat for the third quarter with no focus and no energy, playing like they were zombies.
They followed up that loss with an equally disappointing defeat to the Los Angeles Clippers, a team they beat only a couple of weeks before. The Clippers led from start to finish, hardly breaking a sweat, as the Lakers looked dazed and confused and showed little or no fight.
They followed up the loss to the Clippers with another deflating home defeat, this one to the lowly Detroit Pistons who played so poorly for most of the game it was as though they were trying to let the Lakers win.
Much of the blame must fall on Russell and Randle, who, along with rookie Brandon Ingram, are expected to be the future faces of the franchise. Against the Blazers, Russell scored only nine points on 4-of-14 shooting. He got into a scuffle with Damian Lillard in the third quarter after which Russell completely wilted.
Randle was even worse, finishing with six points on 2-of-9 shooting. He was abysmal on defense, especially when counted on to protect the rim in the small ball lineup. Randle was never a factor and was practically invisible, especially in the second half.
Rather than bouncing back, Randle and Russell were even worse against the Clippers. Russell was only 1-of-7 from the floor, finishing with five points. Randle was 2-of-7 and had four points. Indicative of their lack of aggressiveness, Russell attempted only two free throws while Randle attempted none. The Lakers simply cannot win with Russell and Randle as starters when they combine for three baskets and nine total points in nearly 60 minutes of playing time.
Against the Pistons, Randle played one of his worst games ever, finishing with two points on 1-of-6 shooting in 31 minutes. He did not get to the foul line even once. Russell had one of his better shooting games in a while, connecting on 50 percent of his shots and scoring 20 points, but he did have five turnovers which are too high for a point guard, and the coaching staff, inexplicably, only played him a total of 26 minutes despite the fact he was having a good shooting night.
Sluggish starts and second-half disappearing acts have become a pattern for the Lakers. The team may be outclassed one night and outperformed the next, but they should never be out-hustled, which unfortunately happens regularly.
Some of the blame must fall on the coaching staff, which can’t seem to figure out how to get everyone to play hard, and is sticking slavishly to rotations which are not working and to allocating minutes equally instead of riding whoever is hot. It seems so simple since it is the one factor players can control, but it is baffling that the young Lakers play so sluggishly most nights.
There are multiple reasons that the Lakers are, once again, one of the worst teams in the league, but it starts with Russell, Randle, and Brandon Ingram. The Lakers will not show real improvement one can trust until they learn to bring maximum energy, focus, and commitment to every minute of every game.
Ingram, a rookie, can be excused for his five-point game on 1-of-7 shooting against the Pistons while missing key free throws down the stretch. But for Randle and Russell, the excuse is wearing thin. They have played enough basketball the past two years that one would expect them to be farther along in their development and show greater consistency. They should begin to look like the future stars the Lakers need them to become. Right now that seems a long way off if indeed it ever happens.