Editor’s note: This is the Monday, May 3 edition of the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.
Perhaps the worst postgame locker room of the LeBron James era was on Feb. 5, 2019. The trade deadline was looming, the Lakers had just been blown out by the Indiana Pacers, and James was two games removed from coming back from injury.
Players described the frustration they felt being subject to trade rumors, and speculated that it could linger well into the rest of the season. Rajon Rondo told the press: “It’s not like the trade deadline happens, and then everything is going to be back to normal.”
While the popular assumption at the time was that James’ return would plaster over the team’s struggles, Rondo’s words were prophetic: The team faltered down the stretch, missed the playoffs and big offseason changes happened. When players start telling uncomfortable truths, it is a sure sign that ugly things are happening behind the scenes.
This year’s Laker team is in a better place than that one, with more talent, more experience and even a better ramp to making a difference this postseason. But still the hallmarks of a locker room in disarray are there, particularly in this sentiment that Kyle Kuzma – a refreshing source of real talk – shared about the state of affairs:
“I just don’t think we’re connected right now,” he said. “I think we’re unhealthy and just not good enough. Losing six is very tough, and we’ve all had winnable games during that stretch. And it’s just a little disappointing. We’re just not together as a whole – team, staff, everything. So we just gotta get back onto it. Try to find out some way, somehow, to get it clicking again and get that spark.”
With the Lakers at a low point, some things came out of a loss to Toronto that indicate the challenge the team is facing. It’s frustrating not only because the Lakers are losing, but because they also learned Dennis Schröder will be stuck in the league’s COVID-19 protocols, and James may have to miss more time after leaving the game early with right ankle soreness.
A lot was said on Sunday night. Here are some of the most important things, along with some necessary context:
1. “We’re not playing with any swag. I don’t think guys are having fun. Obviously it’s no fun when you’re losing but at the end of the day, we’re the champs, man. Like, we are the champs. We’re the defending champs. So we got to play that way and play with a little bit more swag.” – Anthony Davis
Yeah, where exactly is that swag?
The Lakers played a scrappy stretch without Davis and James, and when those two returned, the expectation was be that everything would click into place. But using games as practices for fitting rotations together has not worked out as envisioned, and from game to game, quarter to quarter, lineups and individual players have been inconsistent. The No. 1 rated defense that held on for so long has been a sieve, dropping to a 114.5 defensive rating over the last seven games (23rd in the NBA).
It feels as though the Lakers are falling victim to a number of grinding factors at once: Guys are in and out of the lineup. Players who are healthy don’t have a strong understanding of their roles in different situations, and some accomplished vets are accruing DNPs. The compact schedule and COVID-19 protocols have made travel way less fun and given much less opportunity to build chemistry. The players who have won seem to have some accumulated frustration with the players who haven’t.
It’s hard to find fault for this with any one person. So much of it is the Lakers falling victim to circumstance, and other parts of it are built out of the natural consequence of having a lot of talented players and not enough playing time for all of them.
But this is the moment when the Lakers are supposed to be unveiling their killer lineups, their smothering defensive rotations, gaining confidence in where their baskets are coming from. It’s not happening. Maybe they have a switch that magically comes on during the playoffs, but one would note it should have come on by now.
2. “You never know until you get out there, because honestly some of the sharp pain that I’m feeling or the pain that I’m feeling on the floor I didn’t have during my workouts, during my training or during my running and things of that nature so the only way to test is to get out on the floor. For one, there ain’t no damn practice time. It’s not like when you get practice time you get five-on-five, you get (live work), this is not the season for it. We’ve known that since the beginning. The only opportunity for me to get some live was during the game.” – LeBron James
The “sharp pain” part is not a good excerpt. The idea that James’ right ankle has been experiencing discomfort that he didn’t feel beforehand speaks to the idea that he was not fully tested before getting out there. That may have been a value judgement between James and the people responsible for his treatment, that maybe he could play through some slight discomfort, but it helps explain some other areas where the Lakers have been vague.
When James came back, Frank Vogel declined to give any detailed information on the kind of work he had done, including scrimmaging. James later acknowledged after the loss to the Kings that he hadn’t done any live work with teammates. The nature of the season is such that live work is hard, but the Lakers would have had an opportunity for that on Wednesday with two days off in the coming week to see how James blended with the group. Somewhere along the line, James decided (with the Lakers’ blessing) that live work wasn’t necessary. It probably speaks to the urgency to the situation the Lakers were in, having lost four out of five.
To call out the Lakers for letting James, who knows and manages his body as well as any athlete alive, return too early is a bit of Monday-morning quarterbacking. If the Lakers had beat the Kings and the Raptors, the decision to play would come off as a more understandable gamble. And what exactly is the standard here? James himself said, he’ll probably never be “100% healthy” for the rest of his career at 36.
But if James continues to be in and out of the lineup for the rest of the regular season, the process of how he came back will be under scrutiny.
3. “I’m not sure if (Schröder) has (COVID-19) or not. I don’t know. But it’s just very unfortunate that the league’s protocols and how they go about things. I’ve had inconclusive tests and been negative, and we’ve had a bunch of guys with that. And it just sucks. Obviously, it’s just a lot of public media control with, I feel like, how the protocols are ran. So, I mean, that’s just my opinion. But it’s tough.” – Kyle Kuzma
Reaching back to the first quote here, it’s important to remember that this season, even compared to other regular seasons, have been a grind. And the COVID-19 protocols are the grindiest element, affecting the schedule, the lack of fans, the restrictions on social contact, leaving hotels and constant, constant testing. To many players, the protocols feel arbitrary and confining – which is not to say that they have not been an effective tool preventing an even larger tide of cases, but merely that players (and staffers) get frustrated with them.
Schröder’s situation is opaque. The NBA has resisted sharing details and timelines about players who enter the protocols, so it’s impossible (for now) to know whether his health is at risk, whether he was exposed to someone who tested positive, or tested positive himself. It’s difficult for the Lakers that this is the second time he’s had to miss games for this reason, and there’s probably some desire from Kuzma here to relate exactly what the situation is to make it more transparent. The confusion about what exactly lands players in these protocols layers on more strain to an already stressful circumstance.
An aside: The question asked here was about what it’s like to lose a teammate to the protocols when vaccines are available. It’s also worth observing the Lakers have not been terribly transparent of their vaccine progress or procedure, with only a few players showing their own process on social media (like Montrezl Harrell, who was very happy to get vaccinated). The most straightforward update was Vogel on April 21 saying that the Lakers’ traveling party hadn’t yet reached the 85 percent threshold of fully vaccinated people that lessens the most severe protocol restrictions.
4. “I’m not sure what to do. I wish we could get a little bit more time out there with Marc. That’d be something that would be pretty good for us, for sure. But it’s just tough. It’s tough. We got a lot of different situations, and a lot of things going on around us.” – Kyle Kuzma
It was definitely a very spicy postgame for Kuzma, who breathed new life into the continuing subplot of the Lakers’ centers rotation, which is in a very tenuous place. Andre Drummond has had ups and downs. Montrezl Harrell has had some downs lately. Marc Gasol has not played much at all. And with so much losing lately, it may be a natural time to stir things up.
Gasol is a 3-point shooter and savvy passer, but the biggest thing he might bring to the table compared to the other two is that he has won it all, and he did it as a starter. That’s not a pass that he should start for the Lakers now, but as the franchise saw last year with Rajon Rondo, that kind of experience has special value in playoff series, even if the player is not physically who he used to be.
This isn’t a completely fair apples-to-apples comparison because Gasol played in a lot of lineups with a healthy James and Davis, but the Lakers have outscored opponents by 74 points in his 885 minutes this year; with Harrell, it’s been plus-69 in 1487 minutes. With Drummond, the Lakers have been outscored by six in 327 minutes. It’s not a whole argument by itself, but it’s food for thought.
The understanding so far has been that the Lakers will play their bigs as match-ups dictate during the postseason. In the meantime, Drummond is the de facto starter, and Harrell is the de facto back-up. Recently, Vogel has tried returning Davis to the center position where he did damage, but it has usually been when the Lakers are already in a hole. If these final eight games can reasonably be considered an extension of the Lakers’ playoff fates to avoid a play-in game, then it might be time to mix it up.
5. “It doesn’t matter at the end of the day if I’m not 100 percent or close to 100 percent. It don’t matter where we land. That’s my mindset. And if we just end up to land at fifth or sixth or whatever or if we end up in the playoff — whatever that thing is. Whoever came up with that (expletive) need to be fired. But whatever.” – LeBron James
First of all: It’s hard to say based on how the Lakers have lost a number of games to sub-.500 teams that they deserve to avoid the play-in games. The seven and eight seeds will have a double-elimination shot to make the first round. There are worse hurdles in the Lakers way. The biggest thing they’ll miss is rest, with the play-in round beginning on May 18, two days after the team’s last regular season game in New Orleans.
But really think about what LeBron is saying here: What matters most to win a championship is that he is near 100 percent. The underlying thought, which perhaps is true, is that the Lakers can’t win it all without James — on a roster with three multiple-time All-Stars, the top two Sixth Man of the Year finishers last season, and a bunch of returning role players. Most thought once the offseason was over that the Lakers had the best, most talented roster. Many still do.
On LeBron James-led teams, LeBron James is always the most important element. They’ve failed when he’s failed. They’ve failed even when he’s been individually brilliant. But they’ve never won when he’s been a lesser version of himself, which is why he’s won Finals MVP in each of his four title runs. Around the league, he’s seen as the playoff cheat code, a match-up beater who can make his teammates better. But without a healthy, superhuman King James, even he recognizes that somehow this Lakers roster is less than the sum of its parts.
It’s not a great vote of confidence in the Lakers with just two weeks to go until the playoffs begin. Then again, what have they done lately to deserve one?
– Kyle Goon
Editor’s note: Thanks for reading the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.
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