The Los Angeles Lakers might as well have not shown up to the Moda Center on Saturday to face the Portland Trail Blazers. LeBron James remained out with abdominal strain, while Anthony Davis — who was a game-time decision with a sprained thumb — exited in the first quarter with a stomach issue. The rest of the group put forth, by their own admission, a measly effort, particularly Russell Westbrook.
Portland (5-5) defeated Los Angeles (5-5), 100-85, and the game was nowhere near that close.
The first-quarter loss of Davis was heavily dispiriting. Still, however short-handed, the Lakers' noncompetitive showing exacerbated the frustrations that emanated from their despicable loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday at Staples Center.
“We can't make no excuses, That's not Laker basketball,” Dwight Howard said. “That's the only way we can win: Humility, energy, and effort. And go out and just play. But, like I said, the effort has to be there…We're not the championship team we want to be right now, so in order for us to get there we have to stay humble.”
#LakersTwitter will think otherwise, but it's too early to press the panic meter. After all: Los Angeles might be 7-3 with a healthy LeBron (assuming they win both OKC games).
That said, it's 2021: it's never too early to worry. Here are five reasons to be legitimately concerned.
LeBron has been injury-prone since his arrival in Los Angeles. He remains confoundingly productive when on the floor, and the Lakers are extra-cautious with his body. But, he's suffered two real injuries in the first month of the season. His 2018-19 and 2020-21 campaigns were derailed by injuries.
The Lakers' title hopes rest on his health, which is nowhere near as guaranteed as it used to be.
Anthony Davis, meanwhile, is a nightly risk. Coming off an injury-riddled 2020-21 that he repeatedly blamed on the condensed offseason, Davis seemed to enter this season in the best shape of his career. Yet, he's already dealt with ankle soreness, a sprained thumb, and, tonight, a stomach bug. He's been pinballing himself around the court in an admirable but nerve-wracking manner.
He's only 28, and these particular ailments are not interconnected nor long-term concerns. His general ability to stay on the floor, though, is.
Additionally, neither Talen Horton-Tucker, Trevor Ariza, nor Kendrick Nunn is close to returning.
The Lakers will be patient with chemistry-building, especially with so many supporting pieces out. However, these early-season losses will affect their playoff positioning. As Vogel said on Thursday, the Lakers have “big picture patience and a small-picture sense of urgency.”
The schedule is getting starkly tougher after an early slate full of home games and lottery teams. The depleted Lakers will next face the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat before an East Coast swing that will take them to Milwaukee, New York, Boston, and Indiana (and Detroit).
Their five wins this season have come against the Memphis Grizzlies (barely), the San Antonio Spurs (barely), the Houston Rockets twice (once barely), and the Cleveland Cavaliers. They've been rolled by Portland, Golden State, and Phoenix.
Looking ahead, their second-half schedule is heavy with road games and back-to-backs.
3) No trade options
Should things not turn around and the roster prove flawed, Rob Pelinka's ability to make midseason upgrades is severely limited. The Lakers' only tradeable pieces (for value and contract reasons) are Nunn and Horton-Tucker — neither of whom have played this season.
4) Russell Westbrook
Westbrook followed up his tragic last-minute vs. OKC with one of the worst games of his career in Portland: 8 points (1-of-13 FG), 6 turnovers, -20.
To be charitable, his performance as a Laker has been up and down. The efficacy of his fit remains TBD.
“We've seen him in some games that we've had at home, we've seen him fit right in,” Melo said. “We've seen him lead the charge, we've seen him do what he do, where he's in attack mode. And we've seen nights where he hasn't been that. … He's always figured out how to make adjustments, what he has to do personally, physically, mentally. … We've just got to be there to support him.”
Westbrook has committed more turnovers than field goals in half of his games with the Lakers. His crunch-time performances have been abysmal — a theme of his 14-year career.
“If you just kinda look back and you see the last three or four years, I’ve always been on new teams, so I’m just kinda like figuring out the best way to better play,” Russ claimed. “The good part about it is I’m so blessed and thankful that I can do so many different things on the floor, that I can do whatever, with anybody. I can play with anybody. And I’m very comfortable with that. But also I take a lot of pride, and I take a lot of just energy and effort to make sure I can be the best I can be with the guys we have on this team and make the best of this situation.”
(We can debate how well he's actually adapted to his surroundings.)
We can't judge anything until we see a larger sample size with LeBron. Regardless, there's no indication that the Westbrook acquisition is a success thus far. The play of various casualties from the trade around the league — Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, Alex Caruso, not Dennis Schröder — won't ease the nerves of Lakers fans.
“From my perspective: gotta play harder, strictly just speaking for myself,” Russ said after the Blazers loss. “Do a better job being me, consistently, and not confining my game or how I play, because it just doesn't work for our team. It doesn't work in general. It doesn't put me in a position or pace that I need to play at to be able to better my teammates, so that's just something I need to make sure I'm consistent doing.”
The Lakers sacrificed defense for offense with their summer moves. By Pelinka's own admission, they banked on AD's rim protection, LeBron's engagement in high-stakes scenarios, and Vogel's acumen to keep the defense afloat when it counts.
It does not “count” yet. But, outside of a few quarters, the Lakers have been porous on D — especially on the perimeter.
“We're struggling to contain quick, deep-shooting guards with this year's personnel the way we like to bring double teams,” Vogel said Saturday. “So we pulled back on it some and those guys took advantage of it. I mean, before we pulled back on it, we weren't tough enough with our low man in our rotations and we weren't containing with our guards in the trap well enough. So when neither one was happening, we pulled back into our base coverage and that's risky against shooters like Dame and C.J.”
At the moment, Los Angeles ranks 14th in defensive rating, thanks to some subpar shooting from their opponents. But the eye test — and their own assessment — paints a more troubling picture. Along with Westbrook's fit, this is the biggest concern for the Lakers going forward. Of course, the issues are intertwined.
It won't get easier on Monday, as LaMelo Ball, Miles Bridges, and the upstart Hornets come to town.