With less than two months remaining in the regular season, the Los Angeles Lakers were expected to be a juggernaut by now but instead the opposite is true. The team has fallen from fourth place in the Western Conference to 10th place, and with 25 game remaining, they are three games out of the eighth spot.
Since LeBron James was injured on Christmas Day, the Lakers have been in a free-fall. When he finally returned to action at the end of January, things did not get better. Not only did the Lakers endure a 42-point massacre at the hands of the Indiana Pacers, they went into the All-Star break with a terrible loss to the lowly Atlanta Hawks.
The national media has written off the Lakers as riddled with internal strife, the victim of poor front office choices, bad coaching decisions, and too many injuries.
The Lakers can still make the playoffs, but they are going to have to return from the All-Star break with a totally new frame of mind. James will do his part, but three other players must really rise to the occasion if this season is going to be salvaged.
While the front office may have seen it differently entering training camp, others were very worried about the center position. The Lakers reportedly made little effort to re-sign Brook Lopez, last season’s starter and one of the better stretch big men in the game.
With Lopez off to the Milwaukee Bucks, the Lakers signed JaVale McGee to be the new starting center. The risks were obvious: McGee was injury-prone, a career reserve, and someone who had not played more than 10 to 15 minutes a night in years.
The Lakers’ front office believed that McGee was more talented than his career had shown and that in the right setting he could flourish.
McGee did indeed succeed during the first two months of the season, and it was a very pleasant surprise. He and James worked well together in the pick and roll offense, but it was on defense that McGee really shined.
He was leading the league in blocked shots at one point and gave the Lakers one of the NBA’s best rim protectors. McGee was eventually derailed by an unusual illness, which started as flu-like symptoms but ended up in pneumonia.
He missed seven games, and when he was finally able to return, he started slowly. So slowly, in fact, that he was supplanted by Ivica Zubac in the starting lineup.
For a while, head coach Luke Walton made the unusual decision to rotate three centers. Tyson Chandler was fatigued, however, and could not play every night, so Zubac was starting and McGee was coming off the bench.
After a particularly ugly loss to the Golden State Warriors, there was a reported incident in the locker room in which certain players confronted Walton about his rotations. One of those players was said to be Michael Beasley, and another being McGee.
The result of that heated discussion was that Beasley was traded, but instead of dispatching McGee with him, the team traded the promising Zubac and promoted McGee back into the starting lineup.
McGee has played very poorly on defense the past month, and his body language and demeanor have been the exact opposite of the player who seemed to be enjoying himself and his teammates earlier in the year.
The bottom line is this: For the Lakers to have any chance of making the playoffs this year, McGee has got to re-channel his efforts and enthusiasm on defense and play like the season means something and he wants to be a Laker.
In his second NBA season, Lonzo Ball is already one of the most polarizing figures in the league. Often injured, and with his father making dreadful statements this past month about the front office, Ball’s coach and his teammates, it is a wonder that Ball was not traded before the deadline.
What is lost in all the craziness, however, is that Ball is a key to the Lakers success. His statistics are down this season overall, but that is a product of playing alongside James who does many of the same things that Ball is supposed to do. Ball is surprisingly the team’s best defender, and the Lakers’ utter collapse on defense coincided with his injury last month.
He can also knock down three-point shots, and when he is aggressive in getting into the paint, can find open teammates for easier scores. Ball really is someone who makes his teammates better, even if it is not always pretty.
Ball was playing better than at any time in his career when he was injured. He was aggressive, more vocal than usual, and playing with confidence. When Rajon Rondo was out with an injury, Ball thrived and was looking like a real leader, perhaps for the first time in his young career.
Like him or not, unless Ball returns soon and performs at the same high level he was playing before the injury, the Lakers will not make the playoffs. He is that important.
Ball is capable of doing magical things when he asserts himself, and the Lakers need some magic right now. He is special when he is focused, engaged, and aggressive.
At the moment, it is unclear when Ball will return from his ankle injury. When he does return, he may be rusty from a long layoff. Either way, without Ball playing at a high level, the Lakers’ chances of making the playoffs will be greatly diminished.
Kyle Kuzma has enjoyed big, eye-opening games this season, but he needs to do it more consistently if the Lakers are going to make the playoffs.
James can’t do it all by himself, and Brandon Ingram is not ready to be any team’s second scoring option on a nightly basis. If anyone is going to do it, Kuzma is that person. Without him scoring 20-plus points every night, and contributing on defense and on the boards, the Lakers will not make the playoffs.
When he sets his mind to being fully engaged and aggressive, Kuzma is a difference-maker. He has star quality written all over him, but he can’t settle for being streaky, he has to do it every night.
It was only an exhibition, but Kuzma was playing to win in the Rising Stars Challenge this past weekend, scoring 35 points and earning MVP honors.
As opposed to last season, however, when he had a certain swag and was aggressive every game, especially in the fourth quarter, this season Kuzma has spent too much time deferring to his teammates.
Too often he stands in the corner and watches as James, Rondo, Ingram, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Lance Stephenson dominate the ball.
For one of the few times this season, Kuzma was very aggressive from the start in a recent game against the Philadelphia 76ers. He was fighting to get open from the moment the game started and was not hesitating when he had an open shot.
The result was 23 first-quarter points. Equally important, he did not disappear in the second half, and during the third quarter scored 10 straight points to keep the Lakers in the game.
For the Lakers to make the playoffs, Kuzma has to put in all together in the remaining 25 games. He needs to bring it every moment of every game, and not just in the first quarter. As great as James is, the Lakers often get into trouble in the fourth quarter of games when he tries to do too much and everyone else, Kuzma included, stands around and watches.
Kuzma is averaging 19.1 points per game this season, which is good improvement over last year when he tied for the team lead at 16.1 points. He is going to have to do even better down the stretch of the season if the Lakers are going to make the playoffs.
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