When LeBron James came on Friday for his final leg, his Los Angeles Lakers were 11 points behind the Boston Celtics. It was hardly his fault. At that time he was the only Laker with a positive point difference. His team had won his minutes by four points … but lost the one he had missed by 15. This is LeBron’s standard protocol after 19 years. No player in NBA history has done more to improve underperforming teammates than James. An 11-point comeback on the road is old hat for him at this point. But there is only so much a player can do.
He left the game three minutes later, 19 behind the Lakers. All in all, the Lakers managed to turn a 14-point lead into a 22-point loss. Such slumps are the order of the day this season. The Lakers gambled away a 26-point lead on Thunder a few weeks ago, but LeBron’s return should prevent such embarrassment. James held up his end of the bargain. He managed to score 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting despite suffering an abdominal injury that cost him only eight games. But the Celtics helped uncover a sobering truth about the team he plays for that may never apply to other teams he played for. Not even LeBron James can save the Lakers from themselves.
The 8-9 Lakers are the first James team to break below .500 in 17 games since their 2003-04 rookie Cleveland Cavaliers. James was obviously absent from many of these games, but the main value of taking over Russell Westbrook was to prevent that very situation. The Lakers should have two superstars to wear when James was seated. They didn’t when he was injured. They didn’t when he needed rest on Friday. Of course, they didn’t have a chance. Frank Vogel’s bizarre rotations continue to burden the Lakers at every turn.
With James, Westbrook and Talen Horton-Tucker, the Lakers have three attackers in top form with the ball in hand. Between 3:54 and 1:56 of the first quarter, all three sat on the bench while Rajon Rondo took over the offense. With Rondo on the floor this season, the Lakers have scored a paltry 97.2 points per 100 possessions. You predictably lost this distance by two points. In the second quarter he played a stretch with James and Davis on the bench. The Lakers lost this by another two points. These are unforgivable mistakes. Graduation is a standard practice in the NBA. It makes sense not to play for minutes without at least one of your top two players on the floor. It makes sense to segregate players with similar skills so that you can get the most out of what they bring to the table. The Lakers didn’t do that.
However, they are not getting the most out of their players, even in the best of orientations. Does it really make sense for James, Westbrook, and Horton-Tucker to clear out while Avery Bradley works on a dribble handover?
By the end of the third quarter, the Lakers played nearly three minutes with James, Davis, and perhaps their top three shooters: Carmelo Anthony, Wayne Ellington and Malik Monk. This is a line-up for the James-Davis pick-and-roll that has been their bread and butter in the late game for the past two seasons. The Lakers ran it once. On the other hand, they got up twice during this period and took advantage of a total of 14 aftermaths against the Celtics. No NBA team even uses nine per game, and most are under five. That’s common sense again. They are an inefficient form of insult that cumbersome tall men save. Five of those post-ups came down with Enes Kanter, perhaps the NBA’s worst pick-and-roll defender. It’s the only defensive ability he has. The Lakers didn’t tailor their game plan to suit their opponent.
They didn’t tailor their roster around their superstars either. Do you know how you can go from number 1 in defense to number 18 in a year? You get rid of all of your best point-of-attack defenders and hire a 20-year-old to guard the best opposing goalscorer. You know how to build a bank where every player posts a negative plus-minus against your biggest rival? You dedicate two thirds of your squad spots to the players who deserve the minimum salary. Do you know how you’ve held up to 70 points against this rival over the past three quarters? You are introducing a high-usage non-shooter into an ecosystem that relies on low-usage shooters.
Having played 17 games, the Lakers have no recognizable identity. The defense that brought them the 2020 championship is gone. The transition attack Westbrook was supposed to lead wasn’t overwhelming as the Lakers finished second on Friday, but only eighth on fast break points and 15th in points per possession in transition. Even if they bring up simplified lineups that ease the style that has made them offensively successful in recent years, they just can’t help but waste those possessions on the wrong shots.
James has raised many overwhelming teams to unimaginable heights. We’re talking about someone who has reached the finals for nine consecutive healthy seasons. But these teams lacked talent. The Lakers are missing something deeper. They lack cohesion. They lack common sense. Where James’ worst teams were once defeated by more talented opponents, this time around, the Lakers are the team with the talent. It didn’t matter. You will not go out of your way. The Lakers do this to themselves, and not even LeBron James can beat his opponent with his own team in the way.