Are the Lakers Doomed?

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by Henry L. Liao

Brace yourself, Lakers Nation. Doomsday is just around the corner.

From being a preseason favorite to hold aloft the Larry O’Brien hardware that goes to the National Basketball Association champion, the underachieving Los Angeles Lakers have struggled mightily to remain afloat in the West play-in standings at the All-Star break. And from where we sit, there is no light at the other end of the tunnel the rest of the way.

The Tinseltown team, which has been best described as a hodgepodge of aging misfits that lack sustainable chemistry (in fairness, various players have been in and out of the rotation due to injuries throughout the season) and employs a matador-like defense that is prevalent in playground ball, currently ranks No. 9 in the West with a horrendous 27-31 record. The distracting drama brought about the lackluster performance of the Lakers’ third wheel Russell Westbrook, the club’s highest-paid player at $44 million (plus a player option of $47 million), remains a continuing saga in El-Ay (thank God, the worst is over for Brooklyn and Philadelphia with the swap of a pair of spoiled brats in James Harden and Ben Simmons, respectively, during NBA trade deadline day last February 10).

Will the Big Three scheme of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook work for the LA Lakers?
Will the Big Three scheme of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook work for the LA Lakers?

Throughout the season, the energetic but polarizing Westbrook has been plagued by turnovers (mostly unforced) and erratic shot selection (bungled unmolested layups with his left hand and banking jumpers that are way off their targets) and is often criticized for his poor decision-making. Loyal fans at the Crypto.com Arena have booed the team, especially at the direction of the 6-3, 33-year-old guard, as the losses compile.

A one-time NBA MVP, Westbrook was acquired by the Lakers from Washington last summer in exchange for three serviceable role players in Montrezl Harrell (since shipped to Charlotte on the trade deadline day), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Kyle Kuzma.

From the get-go, the trade had been questioned by many, believing that Westbrook won’t fit into the Lakers system. As things are turning out, they were correct in their assessment.

Worse, the Lakers are scheduled to pay him $44 million for the entire 2020-21 wars as their highest-salaried player – larger than the take-home pay of The King LeBron James ($41 million) and No. 2 man Anthony Davis ($35 million). That adds up to $120 million – way above the NBA salary cap that forced the Lakers to hand out one-year minimum deals to eight players in addition to longer deals for Talen Horton-Tucker (three years at $31 million) and Kendrick Nunn (two years at $10.3 million for the full midlevel cap exception with a player option on the send), who has yet to suit up for the team this season due to knee issues, to round up the roster.

It was an experiment that was bound to fail. And obviously, it has failed.

It did not help any that James and Davis have been hobbled by various injuries throughout the season and both missed double-digit games each time they were sidelined. James was forced to sit out for an extended period because of abdominal (12 games) and knee (five) problems. Davis, who had missed 17 straight games from late December to late January due to an MCL sprain in his left knee, is back in sickbay after suffering a mid-foot sprain in another come-from-behind win over the Utah Jazz last February 16. This latest injury will put AD out of commission for at least four weeks or through mid-March when he could be ready to return for the stretch run (final 13 games) assuming the Lakers are still in contention for a play-in among the seventh – to 10th-ranking teams in each conference (The pairings are No. 7 vs. No. 8 for the No. 7 seed and No. 9 vs. No. 10 with the winner facing the loser of No. 7 vs. No. 8 for the eighth and final conference ticket to the regular 16-team playoffs.)

With only 24 games remaining on their sked, and their opponents making their respective pushes as well, the Lakers’ chances of making it to the top six in the West for an automatic postseason berth are slim. The Lakers need to have a winning streak of 10 or more games at some point after the All-Star break if they are to move up in the conference standings. And that is not likely to happen as the club’s longest winning streak so far has been only four games.

At the moment, the Denver Nuggets are a solid sixth with a 33-25 ledger. The surprising Minnesota Timberwolves are the frontrunner in the play-in race at No. 7 with a 31-28 card. The Lakers’ co-Crypto.com Arena tenants, the LA Clippers are at No. 8 with a 30-31 record, or 1.5 games ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers.

And just as many thought that Portland has gone on a rebuilding mode with the fire-sale trade of three starters in CJ McCollum (to New Orleans along with Larry Nance Jr.), Norman Powell and Robert Covington (both to the Clippers), and probable season-ending abdominal surgery by the club’s meal ticket Damian Lillard, the Trail Blazers have jumped back to No. 10 at 25-34.

Outside looking in (at a play-in spot) are San Antonio (23-36) and New Orleans (23-36).

Realistically, the Lakers, who won in the No. 7 and No. 8 play-in game a year ago to secure the No. 7 berth in the 2021 NBA playoffs, will target to finish at No. 8 to have two play-in chances to win one for a playoff ticket.

And if they unceremoniously drop to No. 11 at regular season’s end in mid-April, and out of the play-ins, Lakers Nation need not fret.

They can look forward to several documentary TV series featuring the Lakers.

“They Call Me Magic,” a four-part series documenting all-time Lakers great Earvin (Magic) Johnson’s life on and off the hardcourt, premieres on April 22 (Apr. 23 Manila time) on Apple TV+.

In addition to that, HBO is coming out with its “Winning Time” series in March that highlights the Showtime Lakers.

And there are more Lakers docus to come to whet your appetite – or, if the team does not make the playoffs, to drown your sorrows.

There’s the Lakers-inspired office comedy that has been ordered by Netflix and Hulu’s Jeanie Buss-helmed nine-part docuseries about the history of the Lakers under the late Lakers owner Jerry Buss and his family. And then there’s the “Last Dance” type of a Kobe Bryant series that will have previously-unseen footages from the late Lakers legend’s farewell NBA season in 2015-16.

So what if the Lakers don’t make the playoffs this season? Relive your team through these documentary series.

Can the Los Angeles Lakers still make the 2022 NBA playoffs?
 
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Henry Liao
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