Injuries are part of sports that professional teams tend to struggle with every now and then. They are a hindrance to team development, growth and success, as well as bringing about unwelcome changes like knocking teams out of routine. The above scenario is consistent with the Los Angeles Lakers’ current predicament. In the absence of LeBron James, Trevor Ariza, Talen Horton-Tucker, and Kendrick Nunn, they are devoid of the wing and ball-handling prowess, having just about enough players left to fill out lineups but not enough to thrive. THE STRUGGLE TO WIN GAMES
The 17-time champions performances in recent games are becoming more and more inexcusable, especially with Saturday’s encounter in Portland. Already down without the previously mentioned quartet, Anthony Davis, another key member of the team, could not overcome a stomach illness to play more than the first quarter. The remaining Lakers did everything short of waving a white flag during the game, playing with little effort and mailing it in as the Blazers pulled further away. It was an embarrassing showing, especially after a second loss of the season to a hapless Thunder team.
After the game, the Lakers toed the line between blaming injuries and taking onus for an underwhelming display. “I think for the most part tonight we just didn’t play basketball,” Carmelo Anthony said. “We didn’t go out there and compete. We didn’t play hard. We’ve only played in spurts. We don’t know who is going to be in there. We can’t control injuries. We can’t control what guys are going through physically. So it is next man up. It sounds cliché, but it is what it is, we’ve still got to be ready to go out there and compete.” Melo captured an honest assessment of a frustrating performance. The Lakers failed to show up against a Blazers team that has been listless at times in its own right this season It was entirely predictable that Lillard would explode out of his slump against the Lakers. The two primary defenders of Lillard on the night were Avery Bradley, a player who was cut a day before the start of the season, and Kent Bazemore, a player who struggles to defend guards.
Lillard breaking a shooting slump against the Lakers here. He hadn’t shot above 37% for 4 straight games, but comes out 3 for 4 tonight, which isn’t a surprise. — Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) November 7, 2021
But it is another byproduct of a roster cut apart by injuries and a roster that was already going to need to rely on offensive output to overcome defensive shortcomings. Without the ability to do the former, the latter becomes only more glaring. Nobody, though, is going to feel sorry for the Lakers and their injury woes, even if it is two seasons running now. “Nobody really cares if that’s happening,” Russell Westbrook said of the injuries. “Nobody really cares if guys are hurt, guys are not in. Nobody cares. It’s my job as a professional to go out and do what I need to do, and that is why it is on me to make that change.” Westbrook has been front and center of the frustrations, an enigmatic figure how is an easy lightning rod early in this season for Lakers fans. But through the first 10 games, he’s spent just 113 minutes alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Comparatively, the trio of Evan Fournier, Julius Randle, and RJ Barrett has played 262 minutes together through 11 games. In short, the Lakers have hardly been able to find their identity, let alone begin establishing it. HOW WILL THEY FARE IN THE ABSENCE OF KING JAMES Lebron James will not be returning for at least multiple more games due to abdominal strain. In a similar vein, Horton-Tucker and Nunn’s returns are not in the immediate, and Ariza is still weeks away at the minimum. A clear signal the Lakers must look in a mirror if things are going to start turning around. Injuries are an excuse, a rightful one at that, for shortcomings early this season. But there is still a lot of ground between the amount of leeway those injuries allow and where the Lakers are through 10 games. His absence may be even more immediately detrimental to the team’s defense than the offense. The team struggled to a just-average rating on that end so far (107.2 defensive ratings, 13th in the NBA), they would have been much worse without his efforts as a helper.
He has contributed perhaps his largest defensive output since his days of wreaking havoc on that end with the Miami Heat. In six games this season, LeBron’s block rate is at 2%, a number that would be the fourth-best of his career, while his steal rate is at 2.9%, better than any of his 18 previous seasons. While he has undoubtedly lost a step as an on-ball stopper, the Lakers’ otherwise weak perimeter defense has required more effort from James than in any recent season. Without LeBron or reinforcements, the Lakers’ defense is likely to deteriorate even further as perennial turnstiles Carmelo Anthony, Malik Monk, Rajon Rondo, and Russell Westbrook allow a steady stream of rack attacks. Even AD won’t be able to patch all of those leaks on his own. A five-game home run that begins on Monday will offer the purple and gold one more chance to get things headed in the right direction. Should the team fail to click afterward, then the well of excuses would have fully dried up.