No matter where you live, what team you root for, and even if you spent a lifetime hating the Los Angeles Lakers for winning championships at the expense of your hometown team, it is hard not to feel pity for
the once-proud Lakers organization. That is, if you are not laughing at them, like most of the media is
doing right now.
The team suffered a 49 point loss to a bad Dallas Mavericks team Sunday afternoon, the most lopsided defeat in team history. It was not just that they lost for the third time this season to the Mavericks, who, aside from beating the Lakers, have won only 12 other games all year. It is not that the team was behind at halftime by the largest margin in franchise history. It was not even the fact that the players were awful in every facet of the game. It was the way they lost that was so disturbing.
Not a single member of the team had any fight in him. No one showed any energy or passion. No one made any effort on defense. No one moved the ball or tried to rally his teammates. It was almost slapstick, for as a collective group, it was as hapless an effort as has ever been seen by a modern NBA team. It was as though the Mavericks were reincarnated as the Harlem Globetrotters and the Lakers were the Washington Generals, who were there for comic relief only.
For a fourth straight year, through three different coaching staffs, the Lakers are one of the worst teams in the NBA if not the worst. This season, with a record of 6-22 in its past 28 games, and after Sunday’s historically bad performance, the team has reached the bottom of the Western Conference standings where ESPN predicted they would be when the year started.
Is anyone accountable for this mess? You can decide for yourself, but here are the candidates.
1. The Coaching Staff
Coach Luke Walton arrived at Staples Center last summer to a hero’s welcome, a breath of fresh air after the depressing Mike Brown/Mike D’Antoni/Byron Scott eras. Walton is very likable, and everyone wants to believe that he can turn things around, but the honeymoon is just about over as some are now wondering aloud if he is the right captain for the sinking ship.
A coach can’t be the one to play defense or move the ball on offense: his task is to get the players to do it. Although he has preached these things all year, he can’t get the players to buy in. If nothing else he must light a fire under the team to make sure they play hard. That hasn’t worked either.
The players seem to like Walton, but they aren’t listening to him. Walton is unwilling to make any adjustment in the rotations unless injuries necessitate a tweak.
The rotations that worked to begin the season have not worked the last two months, and it is clearly time for a change even if the options seem limited. Still, the coaching staff won’t shake things up and the team continues to lose.
Likewise, the coaching staff is unwilling to go all in on developing the young core. No one on the squad is playing 30 minutes a game and veterans like Timofey Mozgov, Luol Deng, Lou Williams, Nick Young and lately Jose Calderon continue to play more minutes than they should. Mozgov and Deng have played poorly and do not seem to fit on this young squad. Young and Williams are having good seasons offensively, but so what? It hasn’t translated into wins, nor does playing them help prepare anyone for the future.
Walton’s cheerleading in the media is starting to sound odd. He is “not at all concerned” about the team developing a losing culture despite the constant losing the team is experiencing right now.
Walton is a young coach with a lot of promise in the same way his players have been described as having potential. Just as the young players have a lot to learn, so too does Walton. The Walton/Brian Shaw combination is still promising, however, and Walton is still worth betting on for the long haul.
Despite the fact that this coaching staff has not been able to get the players to play any defense or share the ball, no clear thinking person is willing to give up on Walton at this point.
2. The Front Office
In contrast to the coaching staff, the Lakers’ key front office personnel have been on the job a long time, perhaps too long. This, of course, is a reference to the much beleaguered tandem of Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss.
Kupchak recently proclaimed that he is “incredibly ecstatic” about the future of his current group of players, making one wonder what team he has been watching this season.
The front office caught a break when Walton said yes to their offer last summer. When the team started off better than expected, they enjoyed a brief respite from the brutal criticism of their jobperformance. With the Lakers finally reaching the cellar in the Western Conference, where they also finished last season, the focus has returned to their continuing ill-fated decisions.
The enormous, long-term contracts given to Mozgov and Deng were beyond ill-advised. Everyone on the planet recognized it except for Buss and Kupchak, which is scary. Deng and Mozgov were a bad fit from the outset and have played poorly.
Deng is showing signs of age as he’s had physical ailments. It is frightening to think that the Lakers are saddled with their large contracts for three more seasons unless they can find someone foolish enough to take them in a trade.
Then there was the poor decision to sign Marcelo Huertas and trade for Jose Calderon as the backup point guards. My ten year old niece knew that was a mistake, since Huertas was a borderline NBA player to begin with and Calderon’s career was over as evidence by the fact he could not crack the rotation on Spain’s Olympic team.
D’Angelo Russell has not proven to be durable, so it was clear to everyone other than Buss and Kupchak that the Lakers would need a back-up point guard who could play a meaningful role. Many teams have been successful in filling that position, but not the Lakers. Instead, the front office settled for Huertas and Calderon, who are repetitive under the best of circumstances and clearly not the kind of point guards the Lakers needed in an important supporting role.
Then there was the signing of Metta World Peace the last two seasons. Everyone in the league knew he was through as a player — of all the NBA executives, apparently only Buss and Kupchak didn’t get the memo.
There is no certainty that Anthony Brown will ever be a good NBA player, but he was a high second round choice who they abandoned after only one season. Even when he had trouble scoring, Brown but could play some defense, something no one else on the team can do. Or, if not Brown, how about someone from the D-Fenders like Vander Blue?
For that matter, isn’t there anyone in the entire D-League who has potential to become a legitimate NBA player who could have replaced World Peace? Why can’t the purple and gold find that person, otherwise, what is the point of having a D-League team at all?
Don’t let the Walton signing fool you, the Lakers’ front office has continued to make poor decisions that have contributed to the team’s current plight, decisions that will hinder their future efforts to improve.
3. The Players
Last, but certainly not least, the players deserve a good deal of the blame for the team’s embarrassing position.
After the debacle against the Mavericks, each Laker should have taken a long look in the mirror, as none resembled an NBA player that day. Each man striving to earn a place in the league – and secure a large payday in the future – should relish every opportunity to prove himself against the NBA’s best or, in the case of Dallas, the NBA’s worst.
Yet, the Lakers’ showed far more resignation than fight. If nothing else, one would expect that every NBA player would take pride in his performance. The Lakers do not play that way in most instances. They are often passive in the face of aggressive opponents. When their shots are falling they play hard, but if they are struggling to score they take their foot off the pedal and give up.
The problem is, the Lakers’ shooters are more streaky than good, so there are plenty of nights when the ball is not falling.
It is important to keep emotions in check through a long season, but Lakers players to a man should have felt humiliated after losing to Dallas the way they failed to compete. If they did, however, most did not show it. They simply spoke about moving on. The problem is, moving on to what?
If they have any pride, the players will show up big time in the team’s next game against the Portland Trail Blazers, against whom the Lakers traditionally struggle. Playing with energy and focus should not be an issue this time. The basketball world is watching. The Lakers had better play with a sense of urgency, because the situation is indeed urgent.