They have repeatedly cautioned everyone to expect the start of their season to be a bumpy ride because they’d need time to fit together, but as they passed the one-quarter point of their schedule is it still early or is it too late to write off their struggles as a product of unfamiliarity?
When is it time to wonder if this collection of superstars has the right stuff to play championship-caliber defense and keep up with opponents who are less talented but more opportunistic and scrappier than the Lakers were on Friday?
What if the way they stumbled through an awful 141-137 triple-overtime loss to perennially downtrodden Sacramento at Staples Center turns out to be who these Lakers really are?
They led the Kings by 13 points just under two minutes into the fourth quarter and couldn’t hold on. They led by 12 points with just under nine minutes left in the fourth quarter. “We, obviously, would not like to be one game under .500 a fourth into the season,” James said. “But we know we’ve got more room to improve — got a lot more room to improve.”
In falling to 7-6 at home and 10-11 overall they were outrebounded, outhustled and outplayed by a team that they should have run out of the gym. And they knew it.
“We just, when we get an opportunity to knock a team out, we just allow them to stick around on a handful of plays: turnover here, can’t get a rebound there, defensive breakdown, tough shot,” coach Frank Vogel said. “Just haven’t been able to pull away, but we continue to work on it.
“We want to win every game that we play. We want to build cohesion and chemistry in every game that we play. But we all know it’s going to take time. We have to understand that. And those guys in the locker room are competing their tails off and staying together, and believing in what we can be.”
It’s difficult to picture great things in the Lakers’ future after seeing their 19 turnovers on Friday, the two-for-13 shooting by James from three-point range, the off-balance performance from Anthony Davis, who made nine of 22 shots (and none of the five he attempted from deep) in his first game back after missing the finale of their recent trip because of a fever. They had no clue how to stop guard De’Aaron Fox, who burned them for 34 points, or Buddy Hield, who scored 17 of his 25 points during the three overtimes.
In assembling an All-Star team this season they’ve sacrificed defense — which was vital to their 2020 bubble championship — in favor of offense and nostalgia. That formula isn’t working now, and there’s little reason to believe it will work later. It’s easy to criticize Vogel’s rotations, but the roster he’s working with isn’t meshing with his strengths as a coach.
Davis, though admittedly frustrated, insisted he can imagine the team turning things around dramatically, and soon.
“You know, 10-11, I mean, we could go on a 10-game winning streak, 12-game winning streak, now the narrative is different. You know, 10-game winning streak, we’re 20-11. Now we’ll shut everybody up,” he said. “But it’s on us. We’re going to have to do it. It’s not just going to be easy.
“We knew coming into the season that nobody was going to give us nothing. No one was going to feel sorry for us. No one was going to feel bad for us. We’ve got to go out and take it. And that’s the fun in it. It makes it all worth it in the end when you’ve got to grind for it and work for it like we have to. Holding the trophy at the end of the year is going to feel a lot better.”
A 10-game winning streak would double the number of wins they have. Their longest winning streak so far this season is three, padded by back-to-back games against lowly Houston in late October. The way the Lakers have played so far offers little hope that they’re poised to go on any kind of long winning streak, not after they’ve fumbled their way through what should have been a cushy schedule the first month and lost to teams they should have beaten.
Asked why it has been such a grind for the Lakers so far — and why he has even the smallest shred of confidence they can pull off the kind of win streak he mentioned — Davis spoke matter-of-factly.
“We’re the Lakers, so any team we play, it’s going to be a grind. Everybody wants to beat the Lakers, AD, Bron and Russ, and Melo,” he said, referring to himself, James, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony. “It’s evident that any time we play a team and the guys who’s struggling from three or struggling from the field or whatever have great games against us. So we have to know that going in.
“But the second question, we’re the Lakers.”
It isn’t enough to expect the team’s history and tradition to carry them. “Listen, we’re all disgusted at losses,” James said. “That’s the way it is. But at the same time you’ve got to stay even keel throughout the whole process and understand that we can get better from our losses, we can get better from our wins.”
The schedule isn’t letting up. On Sunday they’ll face the Detroit Pistons, a rematch of a game last week in which James was ejected and suspended one game for throwing an arm that left a bloody cut on Isaiah Stewart’s face. Stewart was suspended two games for trying to get at James. On Friday, Stewart repeated that he thought the blow was deliberate but James insisted otherwise.
“The actual chopdown was on purpose to get his arm off of me. That part was on purpose. But the point of my hand hitting his face was not on purpose,” James said. “He kind of got off-balance when I chopped down and that’s how his head went into my hand.”
James also said he feels no individual motivation in facing Detroit again. “I don’t go into that game with any expectations besides us trying to come out victorious and get back to .500,” he said. “That is the most important thing and that’s always been my mind-set.”
Imagine that, the Lakers having a .500 record as a goal. But that’s who they are, for now.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.