If the Lakers can’t beat the Thunder without LeBron James, how are they supposed to thrive at all without him long term?
LOS ANGELES — In a dismissive tone, Russell Westbrook declined to detail a costly turnover and missed 3-pointer that played a key factor in the Lakers’ 107-104 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday at Staples Center.
“Don’t ask me a question you know the answers to,” Westbrook said. “You’ve seen it. Just watch the game and see what happens. I lost the ball. I missed a 3. Nothing to it.”
In a quiet tone, Anthony Davis expressed confidence in his sprained right thumb even though it remained wrapped in tape.
“It’s fine,” Davis said.
But the Lakers surely are not.
For the second time in the past week, the Lakers (5-4) squandered a double-digit lead to a rebuilding Thunder team (2-6) that has compiled wins this season only because they faced the Lakers.
Perhaps the Lakers would not have squandered a 19-point lead against the Thunder on Thursday had LeBron James not suffered an abdominal strain toward the end of Tuesday’s win in Houston. Maybe the Lakers would not have wasted a 26-point cushion last week in Oklahoma had James not missed a second consecutive game because of a sprained right ankle.
Yet, that entirely misses the point. The Lakers shouldn’t need James to babysit a veteran-laden team of All-Stars to ensure they don’t squander a double-digit lead to a team destined for the NBA draft lottery.
“He’s a big key to our team, but we still got to play,” Davis said. “We still have to find ways to win basketball games. We can’t control him playing or not. But what we can control is go out there and win basketball games with the guys that we have. We have enough pieces to still win basketball games, even though he brings a huge part to both ends of the floor with what we do.”
Yes, the Lakers should have enough pieces to win games.
Westbrook (27 points, six rebounds, five assists) can still log triple-doubles. Davis (29 points, 18 rebounds, two blocks) can still dominate inside. Carmelo Anthony (21) can still score almost anytime he wants to, even in a bench role. Nonetheless, the Lakers also have some serious flaws.
They have 12 new players that have yet to become accustomed toward playing with each other with and without James. They have nursed injuries to key wings all season (Trevor Ariza, Talen-Horton Tucker) and just integrated one against Oklahoma City (Wayne Ellington). The Lakers have a learning curve on the defensive schemes coach Frank Vogel has overseen, a staple that ensured an NBA title run only two years ago. The Lakers barely collected a win against another rebuilding team without James (San Antonio). Even when James was healthy, the Lakers barely collected two wins against another rebuilding team (Houston).
“We can’t fold. We’re okay. We’re all right,” Anthony said. “It hurts to lose to the same team twice within a week within the same fashion. That is something we have to take upon ourselves and hold each other accountable as players and teammates. But other than that, our mode is the same. We know it’s a long journey and long year. But games we’re supposed to win along that way, we should win.”
If the Lakers cannot beat a rebuilding team twice without James, how can they ever absorb any absence he has throughout the season? With James expected to miss at least one more week with his latest injury, how can the Lakers expect to win in Portland on Saturday followed by a homestand that includes playoff-caliber teams in Charlotte, Miami and Chicago?
In theory, the Lakers’ chemistry will improve throughout the season as they play more games, shed their learning curve and discard injured players from the trainer’s room. Just like when they won an NBA title (2020) and experienced a first-round flameout (2021), the Lakers’ championship fortunes will mostly hinge on James’ health. Thankfully for the Lakers, they do not expect James’ injury to be serious.
“Anytime LeBron is out and is going to miss some time, there’s obviously a concern,” Vogel said. “But hopefully this is something that is minimal.”
But even if the Lakers maintain James’ latest injury has no correlation to his injured left groin in 2017-18 and his high right ankle sprain (2020-21), the Lakers plan to remain cautious with James’ 36-year-old body.
Therefore, it seems inevitable the Lakers will have to learn how to navigate parts of the regular season without James. Small sample size aside, the Lakers have already showed warning signs that their roster construction could leave them ill equipped to tackle that challenge.
The Lakers dealt an emerging young player (Kyle Kuzma), a decent big man (Montrezl Harrell), a dependable shooter and defender (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) and a No. 22 pick to the Washington Wizards because they believed in Westbrook’s value in moments such as the Lakers are facing.
“One of the reasons we traded for Russell is being able to stretches where we don’t have LeBron or AD better than we did last year,” Vogel said.
Yet, one of the reasons the Lakers have lost twice against Oklahoma City points to Westbrook’s inability to get out of his own way.
Last week, Westbrook committed 10 turnovers and became an emotional wreck both as the Lakers squandered a double-digit lead and when Thunder forward Darius Bazley threw down a dunk in the final seasons. Westbrook had shown some incremental progress with reducing his turnovers, while maintaining his aggressiveness. But on Thursday, he committed three costly mistakes.
With 21 seconds left, Westbrook sprinted on a fastbreak only to lose control of the ball as he drove to the basket. On the next play, Westbrook helped too far out and left Lu Dort open for an uncontested dunk. And then on the final possession, Westbrook pulled up for a contested 3-pointer that prompted Vogel to admit “we wanted a better shot than that.” Had Westbrook’s spacing been better, perhaps Anthony would’ve been open for a 3 as Vogel had hoped.
“Just got to figure it out. As simple as that,” Westbrook said. “You can’t really do much about it other than figure it out and figure out the best way to play for the team and figure the best way to be effective.”
Granted, the Lakers’ woes don’t fall entirely on Westbrook. DeAndre Jordan has offered little rim protection. Anthony’s productive offense has become offset with his subpar defense. The Lakers missed nine consecutive shots, including four from reserve Rajon Rondo, during a five-minute stretch without Davis and Westbrook on the floor. Despite Davis’ insistence on feeling fine, one can’t help but wonder if his injured thumb negatively affected both his second-half play and his availability for Saturday’s game in Portland.
But Anthony and Davis have seemed to thrive on offense mostly because of their talent as opposed to any playmaking Westbrook has offered. For all the understandable learning curves Westbrook has faced with playing alongside James, Westbrook has had the opportunity to slide back into a more comfortable role without him.
“We got to continue to learn what we’re asking him to do within our system,” Vogel said. “One of those things is keeping those turnovers down, which he’s done a better job of. We have to continue to have him touch the paint and create as much as possible.”
If only Westbrook could have done that with more precision twice in the past week against Oklahoma City. Instead, they are left with questions on when and if Westbrook will become the player they envisioned and will help them notably anytime James has to sit on the bench.