Halloween is here, and for the 2018-19 Los Angeles Lakers, it’s fitting considering the position they currently find themselves in. Optimism ran wild after LeBron James signed on, but with that came increased expectations.
Despite their best efforts, the Lakers currently sit with two wins and five losses, which is the fourth-worst record in the Western Conference. They stare into an uncertain future, knowing that wins need to come sooner rather than later.
It’s not unlike the origins of Halloween itself, drawing from ancient Celtic roots (no, not Boston). Winter, back then, could mean cold, disease, low food supplies, and perhaps, death. Making it through was no certainty, and so Celts relied upon the day when the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its weakest for their priests to make predictions about the future.
After all, when every decision can literally mean life or death, any kind of advantage, psychic or otherwise, had to be utilized.
The Lakers, likewise, find themselves in peril.
While the season is only seven games old and there is plenty of time to right the ship, the Western Conference is as cold and unforgiving as those ancient winters. One slip up can be the difference between life and death in the West, where last season it took 47 wins just to sneak into the postseason.
While head coach Luke Walton can’t predict the future, he’s going to have to make the right decisions to lead the team through the dark and stormy night, starting Wednesday night against the Dallas Mavericks.
In order to equal last year’s playoff mark, the Lakers would have to win 45 of their remaining 75 games, which equates to 60 percent. The NBA schedule makers were unkind to the purple and gold, throwing nine playoff-caliber teams at them in their first 11 games.
The fact that their early losses came to Portland, Houston, San Antonio (twice) and Minnesota, all Western Conference foes, only adds to the pain as they pushed victories onto the records of teams that they will be jostling with for playoff positioning.
It’s been a tense start to a new era of Lakers basketball, though not entirely unexpected. Everyone, from the players to the front office to the beat writers on press row, knew that this was possible.
It takes months if not years for a group of players to develop the chemistry necessary to compete at an NBA level, where the slightest miscue will be recognized and greedily exploited by opponents.
Throw in the fact that the Lakers have already used four different starting lineups in just seven games thanks to injuries and suspensions and it’s easy to see why the team’s rhythm is off. The Lakers were built like Frankenstein’s monster, with random parts sewn and stitched together, but those parts understandably haven’t learned how to act as one just yet.
We’ve seen flashes; brief moments where president of basketball operations Magic Johnson’s and general manager Rob Pelinka’s mad science looks brilliant, but it’s going to take improvements in a few key areas for the Lakers to truly be alive. They fly up the floor with reckless abandon, enjoying passes flung by James, Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo, but the defense continues to be an issue.
Miscommunications provide open looks for opponents, and in the NBA, that can mean death. Rebounding, likewise, has been an issue as the team experiments with small ball lineups, leaving some to question whether the lack of a consistent true backup center will be the team’s undoing.
That said, as bleak as things have been, there are reasons to believe that this Lakers team will make it through the harsh winter and enjoy the playoffs in the spring. This is partly due to the fact that the schedule will get easier but the losses so far have also somewhat obscured the team’s true quality.
The games they have lost have all been very winnable, with little things here and there ultimately leading to defeat. There is plenty of potential for growth.
They currently rank 15th in the league in Net Rating at -.3 and are flying up the floor at the fourth-fastest pace. The Lakers lead the league in transition chances as well as shots taken at the rim, which masks some of their early offensive chemistry issues by allowing them to take advantage of easier scoring opportunities. James is putting up stats in line with his career averages (aside from poor three-point shooting) and each of the young players has had big games.
JaVale McGee has been a revelation while Lance Stephenson has provided valuable minutes off the bench. It hasn’t all come together yet, but the pieces are there for the group to become more than the sum of their parts.
Moreover, in spite of their non-stop assault on the rim, the Lakers currently sit 28th in the NBA in fouls drawn and 25th in free throws attempted per 100 possessions. Walton has already been fined for criticizing officials for not making calls, and it some point it’s going to have to even out.
When that happens, and if the Lakers can make even modest improvements in their defensive chemistry (including rebounding), then the team will surge forward and look much like the roster that everyone was expecting to see this season. They are close to being a dangerous team, and one has to believe that they are going to get there.
In ancient times, Halloween meant dealing with the dangers brought on by the coming winter, where survival was far from guaranteed. This year, the Lakers will attempt to use the day to prove that, despite the slow start, they will find a way to rise in a truly monstrous Western Conference.