Seems like every other day there is a headline about the Lakers that paraphrases some member of the organization urging the team toward a brighter future. Earlier this week it was LeBron James taking some heat off Frank Vogel and the coaching staff by saying that he and his teammates “need to do better.” Recently we had Anthony Davis emphasizing that the Lakers need the good version of Russell Westbrook “all game” and not just in brief, infrequent bursts; last month LeBron urged his team to adopt a “sense of urgency.” These pronouncements tend not to stick. The Lakers are 13–13 Friday morning after an alarming loss Thursday night to a Grizzlies team missing both Dillon Brooks and Ja Morant, and on the second leg of a back-to-back. LeBron and his teammates did not do better; the “good” version of Russell Westbrook was absolutely nowhere in sight; the Lakers, who went up nine points in the first quarter and then pissed it all away on sloppy turnovers and indifferent defense, showed no sense of urgency whatsoever.
I’m sympathetic to the frustrations of this pattern. Monday morning I resolved to improve my diet and add some yoga to my daily routine; Thursday night I drove at a high rate of speed in order to arrive at a local bakery minutes before closing time, then went home and ate one-third of a bourbon walnut pie. It’s hard to talk your way out of bad habits, even if you really fucking mean it. The Lakers have a habit of playing poorly. Davis slips too easily into two-way passivity. The team’s many role players—overripe veterans like Carmelo Anthony and Avery Bradley, underripe whippersnappers like Talen Horton-Tucker and Malik Monk—lack the juice and concentration, respectively, to consistently win their minutes. Westbrook has fallen in love with difficult mid-post pull-up jumpers despite possibly being the worst player in the entire NBA at making them. These behaviors work out as habits of self-sabotage. The Lakers right now are too good at sucking, and sucking tends to correlate more strongly with losing than winning.
My dire pie situation is contained mostly by the walls of my own home. The Lakers have to sort this shit out in view of a public that very dearly hopes that a given professional basketball game will have some entertainment qualities. This is a team that employs two of the 15 or so most talented basketball players on the planet, and in Westbrook a post-prime facilitator who, when the cosmos are aligned just so, is still capable of breathtaking highlights. Even with Dwight Howard and Wayne Ellington floating around in there, even in the early phases of self-discovery, this team should be fun to watch. Instead, it has become clear over the first third of this regular season that unless you are a huge fan of slapstick comedy, these Lakers are fucking awful television.
OK, hmm, it turns out if you condense the Lakers’ persistent, grinding ineptitude to an 85-second lowlight reel, actually it is great to watch. Nevertheless I must insist that there is nothing available in all of live NBA basketball that will more strongly trigger the reach-for-the-remote-control reflex than the sight of Westbrook, with 15 seconds left on the shot clock of an important second-half possession, loading up for another of those absolutely hopeless pull-ups. Westbrook bricked his last ill-advised pull-up of the night from 25 feet, with the Lakers down 11 points, and with under two minutes left in the fourth quarter, pounding the final nail into the lid of his own team’s coffin.
The infuriating holloways of Russ’s oeuvre aren’t even close to all of what makes these Lakers a terrible show. Davis’s maddeningly incurable lethargy has become simply unendurable. Monk appears to do exactly nothing right. Davis’s backup is Dwight Howard, for crying out loud. His backup is DeAndre Jordan, who at this stage of his career has precisely as much basketball value as a Bozo Bop Bag. Even James, who put up his 100th career triple-double Thursday night and finished plus-two in 37 minutes of a 13-point loss, can’t rescue this mess from unwatchability. Certainly not while flinging Hail Mary hit-ahead passes directly into the hands of defenders.
ESPN took the unexpected step last week of flexing a Lakers game out of a national broadcast spot. The Warriors-Suns matchup chosen in its place was a humdinger, on paper and then on the court, but this is not something that would ever, ever happen if the Lakers were not total puke as a television product. What’s most annoying is, while they suck more than enough to be awful to watch, they do not suck quite enough to disappear from relevance altogether. A turn in either direction would be preferable to this. If they are going to play miserable, brutal basketball, the very least they can do is bomb out of the standings and go down in flames. Another few games exactly like Thursday night’s and this mess will have become comedy. Unfortunately, their next two games are against the Thunder and Magic, two of the worst outfits in basketball. Wins will mean next to nothing, but losses are annoyingly unlikely. Resolution, for now, will remain tantalizingly out of reach.
Friday morning it’s Anthony Davis calling upon the Lakers to “be a more consistent team” and “play like we’re the underdogs,” adding another round of pointless iterations to the same grinding pattern. Consistency would be nice. Conveniently, the Lakers already know how to play like underdogs, when they fling it all over the gym, heave awful baloney jumpers, and audibly snore their way through crucial defensive sequences. Let’s just marry the two goals: Play like shitty underdogs, but all the time. It’s a much more realistic goal, at this point, than the alternative.