Look­ing for bot­tom, Lak­ers keep reach­ing new depths

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - DY­LAN HER­NAN­DEZ

The way the Lak­ers are play­ing these days, ev­ery time they step on the floor so­lid­i­fies LeBron James’ claim as the most valu­able player in the league.

Re­move James from the lineup and they bor­der on un­watch­able most nights. Sun­day, with James side­lined for a 10th con­sec­u­tive game, the Lak­ers mor­phed into some­thing par­tic­u­larly grotesque, a group in­fe­rior to even the NBA-worst Cleve­land Cava­liers, who en­tered Sta­ples Cen­ter on a 12-game los­ing streak.

On a night when the sound most of­ten heard was the home crowd’s col­lec­tive hold­ing of breath fol­lowed by groans of dis­ap­point­ment, the Lak­ers dropped a 101-95 de­ci­sion to the last fran­chise to dis­cover how much James could make a team for­get how bad it ac­tu­ally was.

The Lak­ers couldn’t score. Like, at all. From the field, from the free-throw line, it didn’t make a dif­fer­ence.

If James’ ab­sence was an op­por­tu­nity for the likes of Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Bran­don In­gram to demon­strate how much they had de­vel­oped over the last year, the sit­u­a­tion has in­stead ex­posed them — at best, as not ready; at worst, as over­val­ued.

“We want to win,” Ball said. “It’s our team right now.”

As “their” team, the Lak­ers are 3-7, with ev­ery loss they ab­sorb mak­ing their over­all record of 23-21 look more and more like a James-in­spired mir­a­cle. At this point, the pri­mary ob­sta­cle James en­coun­ters in chas­ing his fifth MVP award could be the num­ber of games he misses.

This leads to an un­com­fort­able ques­tion for the Lak­ers: What if the groin in­jury to the pre­vi­ously in­de­struc­tible James wasn’t a fluke, but a symp­tom of age?

James turned 34 last month. He has shared his be­lief that his prime will ex­tend be­yond that of the typ­i­cal player, which ex­plains why he staked a sig­nif­i­cant part of his legacy on a move to a re­build­ing fran­chise.

By now, it’s ob­vi­ous the Lak­ers can’t win with­out James.

If he misses an­other week, the Lak­ers very well could be a sub-.500 team by the time he re­turns. Any­thing be­yond that and their chances of reach­ing the post­sea­son could be threat­ened. They have a rel­a­tively soft land­ing com­ing up Tues­day when they host the Chicago Bulls, though the Cava­liers proved no team should be con­sid­ered a soft

land­ing for these Lak­ers.

Next are road games at Ok­la­homa City and Hous­ton, fol­lowed by a show­down at Sta­ples Cen­ter against the Golden State War­riors.

James ini­tially down­played the sever­ity of the groin strain, but only to now be in his third week in street clothes. The Lak­ers have of­fered no in­di­ca­tion of when he could re­turn, lim­it­ing their med­i­cal up­dates on him to care­fully worded news re­leases. The lat­est news was that he would be reeval­u­ated Wed­nes­day.

The con­cerns ex­tend be­yond this sea­son, how­ever.

Con­sid­er­ing the Lak­ers view any­thing other than a cham­pi­onship as a fail­ure, the re­al­ity is that this was al­ways des­tined to be a lost sea­son. The dream­ing would start when they added an­other star-cal­iber player to com­ple­ment James.

That player could be signed in free agency. There’s also the pos­si­bil­ity the Lak­ers will have to trade for him.

If the lat­ter is the case, the Lak­ers have to be con­cerned if their young play­ers have shown enough to merit a trade for a top player.

Kuzma is the best of the bunch and he re­mains mad­den­ingly in­con­sis­tent. Ball is lim­ited by his shoot­ing. And who knows what to make of In­gram?

With­out James, the Lak­ers are a team that re­quires ev­ery­thing to go right to win. Need­less to say, that wasn’t the case against the Cava­liers.

As much as coach Luke Wal­ton and as­sis­tant Brian Shaw warned the play­ers mul­ti­ple times be­fore the con­test to not un­der­es­ti­mate the Cava­liers, they started slowly. The Lak­ers were down by as many as 15 points in the open­ing quar­ter.

The Lak­ers fin­ished the game shoot­ing 39.6% from the floor, in­clud­ing 20.6% on three-point­ers.

They missed 11 of 27 free-throw at­tempts.

Wal­ton re­stated his be­lief in the group, as if there was any chance of him say­ing any­thing to the con­trary.

Asked what that be­lief was based on, Wal­ton ref­er­enced the vic­tory over the War­riors in which James was in­jured, as well as a win in Dal­las.

“I see them ev­ery day,” Wal­ton said. “I see the way they work. I’ve seen who we can be. Had two big wins last week. When we were ac­tu­ally healthy, we were on the road, beat the de­fend­ing champs.

“I know what this group is ca­pa­ble of. So you see that, you be­lieve in it. You see it once, you know it can be re­peated.”

So this is where the Lak­ers find them­selves, latch­ing their hopes on lit­tle sliv­ers of ev­i­dence, wish­ing some­thing emerges from noth­ing.

Wally Skalij Los An­ge­les Times

KYLE KUZMA, who scored a game-high 29 points, shows his frus­tra­tion late in Sun­day’s loss to the Cava­liers. For the sec­ond time in 10 days, the Lak­ers lost at home to a team that came in with fewer than 10 wins.

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