My seat for Sunday nights game against the Timberwolves at Staples was next to a former ESPN The Magazine colleague I haven’t seen for a while. So we spent some time during the first quarter catching up. I was watching the game, but not the scoreboard. Certain things, like “Hey, someone should close on Kevin Martin,” or “I wish I had Kevin Love on my fantasy team,” and “Wow, that’s craptacular transition defense!” zipped through my head, but it wasn’t until I looked up and noted the carnage in stark terms — the score — that I said, “Holy shit, this got away fast.”
Minnesota basically ended the game before it started with a 27-2 run over about five minutes near the end of the opening 12.
There are plenty of reasons why it happened. Even by their liberal standards, the Lakers were inattentive on defense. They missed a ton of shots offensively, and were slow getting back despite knowing how much guys like Corey Brewer enjoy leaking out early. (You would, too, if outlet passes came from Love and Ricky Rubio.) Five turnovers didn’t help. Steve Nash dragged his left leg around the floor before leaving the game for good with a recurrence of his back/nerve issues.
Still, none of those cut quite to the heart of the matter.
Every best-case scenario for these Lakers included three things: Kobe recovering very, very quickly, Nash getting healthy, and Pau Gasol returning to form. The first two haven’t happened (this is not a criticism), and the third is still an open question. (Gasol said after the game his stretch of poor performances is related more to the upper respiratory infection he’s fought over the last couple weeks as opposed to problems with his knees. Infections eventually go away. Its about the only good news the night produced.) As a result, the Lakers have had to rely on big performances from players like Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks to carry them.
No disrespect to either – Blake’s competitiveness is admirable and Meeks has played very well this season – but that’s not going to work at the NBA level. Role players are important but are role players for a reason. There was a moment after the loss to San Antonio when Mike D’Antoni noted how much the Lakers missed Xavier Henry’s energy and production in the time he was sidelined after splitting his head open. I hope Henry proves my preseason predictions wrong and finds a niche in the league. I truly do. But any team in this league needing him to win games is not in a good place. Red flags come neither redder nor flaggier.
The Lakers need to work out their rotation, find some cohesive execution on defense, bring energy and focus at all times, and all that stuff. But those are cosmetic fixes relative to the fundamental issue: A lack of high-end NBA talent. The Lakers taking the floor Sunday, with Nash and Gasol diminished and Kobe in street clothes, arguably had no players as good as Minnesota’s top three (Love, Rubio, Martin). Maybe Pau is in that group, but maybe not. Until their best players on paper are their best players on the floor or their many reclamation projects make “the leap,” the talent gap applies to most teams they face, from New Orleans on Tuesday to Memphis to Detroit to Golden State to Brooklyn. Throw Washington in there, too, if you’d like. And that’s just November.
Nobody should be all that surprised, given the transitional nature of this season. The hope for the Lakers in constructing the roster was to be as competitive as possible, maybe find a piece or two capable of helping down the road, and then later in the year spin what can be spun into assets for a rebuild. It’s no fun, but what’s happening to the Lakers this season is necessary and unavoidable. So before complaining about the coach, rotations, energy, or other things, remember the most basic problem:
Right now, the Lakers don’t have enough good players to be a good team.