At one point this season, the Los Angeles Lakers boasted a top-five defense. Then it was top-10. Then, it wasn’t. Now, it’s barely recognizable.
There are several factors behind this rapid decline. Some combination of injuries to important rotation players, offenses gaining their stride after a positively hectic offseason, their own offensive struggles and basic regression to the mean can all be pointed to. And yet, this is yet another season in which the Lakers fall short of already low expectations.
Here’s James Worthy on what he’s seen the last few years.
The guys, talking about effort being consistently inconsistent over the last few years, regardless of coach. pic.twitter.com/FcQqydTjVr
— Anthony F. Irwin (@AnthonyIrwinLA) January 4, 2018
Under Byron Scott, strategy could be called into question because the defense was never decent. Luke Walton, at the very least, had the Lakers competing night in, night out. Yes, some issues have remained a thorn in the Lakers’ side (tagging rollers in pick and roll coverage comes to mind), but up until recently, effort wasn’t the issue.
So, what happened recently?
Defense requires buy-in, as well as skill and understanding of tactics. It requires sacrifice and selflessness to help, then help the helper and so on and so forth. Which brings me to the theory at hand: Is the Lakers’ version of “the process” to blame?
The Philadelphia 76ers came under fire for their continued tanking in an effort to draft as much high-end talent as they could possibly acquire. Rewarding losing is awful for the league and blah blah blah. A theme in both the Sixers’ and Lakers’ processes is the consistent feeling that very few players in the organization are worth keeping around.
Yes, guys like Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram feel confident in their standing with the organization for the foreseeable future, but ask Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson for their thoughts on this style of team building. It’s probably fairly safe to assume they aren’t fans.
So what you have in the Lakers’ case is a few guys who can buy in completely to what Luke and the Lakers are selling, while the vast majority of the roster looks at the writing on the wall, see an unpredictable future and start thinking of what might be the best way to ensure a soft landing spot whenever they do depart from L.A.
Player evaluation is still a flawed practice which prioritizes counting stats a little more heavily than it should, but as that remains the case, it’s hard to fault guys whose contracts either end this spring or find themselves on the trading block already for thinking it’s about time they got theirs.
Put another way: Why buy into an organization that doesn’t consider you a part of the future? Why sacrifice if the endgame is your own departure anyway?
Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are by no means alone in their guilt for employing this superstar-or-bust strategy. Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak are both unemployed because they implemented their “process” but fell short in convincing superstars to come in free agency.
Again, though, put yourself in the shoes of guys on the roster who may not have felt wanted under Jim Buss and Kupchak. When the front office underwent the major changes it did, guys like Randle, Clarkson et al. might’ve bought back into the organization in the hopes that they’d be a part of it. Clarkson’s play earlier in the season and Randle’s body transformation would point to this.
As it’s become painfully clear they aren’t, it’d be hard to fault them for looking ahead to what might be next.
Combine that potential effect with Randle’s inconsistent minutes and the guy who was easily the Lakers’ most impactful player for most of this year has become a shell of that promise and productivity. Ironically, this has coincided with his finally being inserted into the starting lineup.
The other consistent trend over the last five years of the Lakers’ rebuild has been teams made up of either guys on their rookie deals or veterans on one-year contracts so as to remain flexible heading into each offseason.
Exceptions to this rule have been Clarkson (on his second contract) and the Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov contracts we shall never speak of ever again. Ever.
Still, the issue with building teams like this, aside from the aforementioned buy-in issue, is the quality of player available on cheap, one-year contracts. So not only are coaches saddled with inexperience, but any experience on the roster is either past its prime or a buy-low candidate attempting to stay in the league long enough to find a prime at all.
The point of all this isn’t to absolve coaches or players of blame. Walton’s misuse of various guys this season and funky rotations haven’t helped an already difficult situation. Professionalism can still be expected regardless of a player’s standing in the organization. I’m not excusing the on-court ineptitude, more explaining what might be behind it.
The issues plaguing the Lakers have been doing so for long enough that we’d be remiss not to notice trends. Maybe these things will fix themselves as guys get healthy again. Maybe this offseason Magic and Pelinka will make good on their promise and land a superstar (or two).
If they don’t, and these trends continue, so too will the inconsistencies that Worthy mentioned above. Professional sports are obviously about results, but we’re witnessing the effects of poor process.