The Los Angeles Lakers have no incentive to tank, since their first-round pick will go to either the Philadelphia 76ers or Boston Celtics, and yet they can’t stop sinking to the bottom of the standings.
A 133-96 loss to the Thunder marked their eighth straight loss and 11th in 12 games, a streak that’s dropped the Lakers from just outside the Western Conference playoff hunt to the second-worst record in the entire NBA, only one game better than the hapless Atlanta Hawks, who should want to lose.
And first-round find Kyle Kuzma, arguably the season’s lone bright spot for the Lakers, isn’t having it.
“We gave up,” Kuzma said of a game in which the Lakers were outscored by 37 over the final three quarters, via ESPN.com’s Ohm Youngmisuk. “You could see, they got basket after basket, we had no resistance on them on the defensive end and offensive end. When things got tough, we tried to do it individually, and you can’t do that in this league.
“They took a little lead, and we just went to being selfish on the floor. We didn’t compete on defense. They killed us. … To lose by [nearly] 40, it is pretty embarrassing to be out there.”
Wait, there’s more:
“That is not being a Laker,” added Kuzma. “I have only been a Laker for a couple of months, but that’s not it.”
For what it’s worth, his coach concurred:
“Our fans deserve better than that,” said second-year Lakers coach Luke Walton, “and our organization deserves better than that.”
That this is coming from Kuzma, a 22-year-old rookie drafted 27th in June, is remarkable, considering the Lakers feature a pair of former All-Stars in their frontcourt (Brook Lopez and Andrew Bogut), two recent second overall picks billed as franchise saviors (Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram), an $18 million salaried free agent (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) and veterans with a wide range of NBA experience.
Then again, Lopez only returned Wednesday night after an ankle injury cost him his previous eight games. Caldwell-Pope’s legal issues prevent him from playing outside the state. Ingram missed a couple games due to a quad injury, and Ball has missed five straight now with a bruised shoulder.
And this has been a particularly dreadful stretch of the schedule for the Lakers, who have played the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves twice apiece over their last 12 games, as well as the Cleveland Cavaliers, Portland Trail Blazers and Thunder. That’s not easy for any team, and the schedule load lifts with eight games against below-.500 teams on the slate this month.
Still, phrases like “We gave up,” “no resistance,” “selfish,” “embarrassing,” and, “Our fans deserve better,” are especially concerning, considering the Lakers are less than a week removed from an airing of grievances in a team meeting. Complaints reportedly ranged from general frustration to playing time and “what is going on with the salary-cap situation next season.” And they quit four games later?
This is good news for the Celtics, who will receive L.A.’s pick if it falls between Nos. 2-5, and horrible news for the Lakers, who held such promise as a roster stocked with young talent, showcasing their abilities in hopes of convincing one or more max contracted free agents to join their NBA ascent.
Instead, that plan has backfired on the L.A. brass, since each player on the roster is all too aware that he could be next out the door in a cap-clearing move akin to the one that sent D’Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets as a thank you for taking Timofey Mozgov’s cumbersome contract off their books. Few players are safe, especially Luol Deng (who’s barely seen the light of day anyway), Jordan Clarkson (who’s owed $37.5 million through 2020) and Julius Randle (a soon-to-be restricted free agent).
In the cases of Randle and other lame-duck players like Lopez, Caldwell-Pope and Corey Brewer, priorities can quickly turn inward on a team with no direction beyond star-chasing, because better individual numbers make for better paychecks in free agency. For Deng, Clarkson and others with long-term security, they can lose all motivation with no playoff carrot to chase. That’s no place to be, especially for a franchise that prides itself on an ability to acquire superstar talent in pursuit of titles.
This is what’s led to the rampant rumors of LeBron James joining the Lakers or their public pursuit of Paul George, including late-night talk show pitches from team president Magic Johnson and actual tampering by GM Rob Pelinka. Despite the Staples Center’s raucous applause for George on Wednesday night and the four-time All-Star conceding afterwards, “the recruitment” was “awesome,” a 40-point blowout sandwiched by team meetings and talk of quitting isn’t much of a sales pitch.
Especially when Russell Westbrook and the Thunder fully intend on making a pitch of their own:
Russell Westbrook on if he feels like he’s making a sales pitch to Paul George this season: “No. Sales pitch is gonna be when we win a championship. Beat that pitch.” pic.twitter.com/85253kuguu
— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) January 3, 2018
The Lakers better get their act together soon, because things could turn sour quickly. If the current situation concerns you, imagine the outcry if the Sixers or Celtics add another blue-chip talent to their already stocked cupboards, the Lakers swing and miss in free agency, and they’re stuck treading water after a record five straight playoff-less seasons. That’s no environment to raise Ingram and Ball.
The Lakers are sinking fast, and there may not be anyone there to save them.
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