In with a bang, out with a whimper.
It’s easy to forget now, but the Los Angeles Lakers started the year 22-7 and spent half a season looking exactly like a defending champion with the maybe-GOAT on their side should look. Some of us old-timers fondly recall those halcyon days of late February, when a Laker repeat seemed borderline inevitable.
Instead, the defending champs were run off the floor in their own building in the first round. Which brings us to the big question: How’d we get here again?
The Lakers’ recent misfortune can be ascribed to two shortcomings in roughly equal measure, one of which was unavoidable and one of which was perhaps preventable.
The unavoidable, part, of course, was that their two best players got hurt. It’s easy to forget how important the simple fact of health is to any championship run, and the Lakers certainly saw the flip side of this during their relatively charmed ride to the title in 2020.
Once LeBron James hurt his ankle in March, the Lakers were never the same, going 18-21 the rest of the way and barely beating a middling Warriors team in the play-in game to make it to the postseason. Even when James came back, he lacked the same burst and acceleration, something that became painfully obvious the longer the Phoenix series wore on.
The groin injury to Anthony Davis in Game 4 against Phoenix was the final blow, with the Lakers outscored by 42 points over the final two games. (In an embarrassing coda for the organization’s entire chain of command, Davis was allowed to “play,” if it can be called that, for a few minutes in Game 6 before mercifully being removed.)
But just blaming injuries is perhaps too easy. The Lakers had two elite stars, but they also had the league’s most yawning gap between their second- and third-best players. The Phoenix series underscored how overmatched the Lakers were at roster spots three through nine against a good opponent; even with Chris Paul not at full strength, L.A. was riddled by the likes of Deandre Ayton and Cameron Payne and had no similar secondary weapons coming to their own rescue. Aside from the two marquee stars, it’s hard to name a single Laker who would start for more than a third of the league’s teams.