So that’s how it ends for the Lakers, unofficially anyway, with an 11-point loss, with LeBron James on the bench in street clothes and a hobbled Anthony Davis looking like he belongs next to him, with his aging list being piloted by a boat. a younger, more athletic one, with his 74th season as an NBA franchise ending as perhaps his most humiliating.
The Lakers will not make the playoffs.
They won’t make the play-in.
After this weekend, they go home.
“Extremely disappointing,” said Frank Vogel.
Carmelo Anthony said: “It was a season where we just didn’t make it.”
Faced with play-in elimination, the Lakers started strong. Russell Westbrook made shots. Dwight Howard made free throws. Davis, still visibly hampered by a lingering foot injury, picked up some rebounds. LA led by three after the first quarter. They were under five at halftime. Then came a 35-22 Suns run in the third quarter that gave the game a laugh.
“Our guys kept fighting until the end,” Vogel said, echoing a familiar refrain.
Awesome. Is there a price for that?
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The Lakers want you to believe injuries have been derailed this season. James has missed 23 games and may not play another in 2021-22. Kendrick Nunn hasn’t seen the floor yet. Vogel called the year “disjointed.” Davis lamented the limited number of games he, James and Westbrook have played together. “I feel like we had the pieces,” Davis said, “but the injuries got in the way of that.” Two dozen players wore one. LA uniform this season. Vogel has assembled 39 different starting formations. Says Davis, “We’ve had more starting lineups than wins.”
All true. But that’s not why the Lakers are tied to the lottery. That’s because they traded for Westbrook, offloading what was left of the team’s assets, passing a more surgical move (Buddy Hield) for the more splashy. That’s because they’ve assembled an old, unathletic roster in a time when youth and versatility rule. It’s because of a chaotic front office with decision makers on the inside (Jeanie Buss, Rob Pelinka, Kurt Rambis) and one (Magic Johnson) throwing grenades at them from the outside.
They didn’t deserve a chance at the play-in. Last Friday, with a chance to make a final stand, a Lakers team with James and Davis lost to the Pelicans without Zion Williamson. On Sunday, with its season on life support, LA was notched for 67 second-half points by a Denver team more familiar with adversity than they were. On Tuesday, a Suns team with nothing to play chased them off the ground.
“I think once the guys got ready for the game, I’d like to believe everyone thought we had a chance,” Westbrook said. “But I can’t really talk about everyone’s preparation, how they feel, if we had a real chance. I never gave up. It’s not in my personality, no matter what. I’m going to play until the end, no matter what happens.
Changes are coming. Westbrook has expressed interest in seeing what a healthy group can do next season. But is it? Westbrook scored 28 points against Phoenix. He shot 50% from the ground. But he made six turnovers. He will shoot below 45% for the fifth time in the last six seasons. He’ll shoot under-30% on three for the fourth time in his last five. For the second year in a row, his free throw percentage will be in the 60s. There’s an Iverson-like arc in Westbrook’s career that puts him on the path to earning $47 million next season…in what could potentially be his last.
“Honestly, me personally, the situation I was lucky enough to be in, I learned a lot, a lot of different things about myself,” Westbrook said. “I was just able to stay real and true and true to what I believe in no matter what was thrown at me, our path and keep fighting no matter the results.”
Vogel could get fired. Probably will. James, who is still playing at MVP level at 37, will have a decision to make on a contract extension. Davis could stay a Laker. Or the front office, armed with limited flexibility, could move it for other parts. Half of the roster next season will likely be made up of players on minimum contracts.
Solving this problem will not be easy. The Lakers are heading to the lottery, but this pick is destined for New Orleans or Memphis, depending on where it lands. All around Los Angeles, there are suitors with a brighter future. James is always excellent. Davis is always special. But the Lakers, right now, are in shambles.
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