Bresnahan: Who needs to step it up?
Several months ago, when the sun was still shining upon Southern California and hope had returned to a franchise in need of it, LeBron James said he knew exactly what he was getting into by signing with the Lakers.
“It's a process. I get it. It will be fine,” he said back in October, cognizant of joining an overwhelmingly young roster dotted with veterans on one-year contracts.
The “process” part was incredibly accurate. The “fine” part is still up in the air.
The Lakers dropped to 11th place in the Western Conference and two games under .500 after losing to Memphis on Monday.
It marked another loss to another team floating near the bottom of its conference, a season-long trend for a franchise that has also fallen to Atlanta, Cleveland, New York, New Orleans, and now the Grizzlies twice.
It's bizarre, considering the mercurial Lakers have defeated all eight teams that would represent the Western Conference if the playoffs started today.
I'm not sure I've seen a Lakers team play so well against good teams and punt against so many poor ones.
The rest of the schedule isn't real friendly, offering an unwieldy stat if the Lakers (29-31) do any sort of schedule analysis, which, for their sake, hopefully isn't happening.
Of their final 22 games, 72.7% are against teams in the playoffs or just outside them if post-season play started today.
The problems on a quick 0-2 trip through New Orleans and Memphis were almost identical. Shoddy starts defensively and a lack of any punch from the reserves, who contributed a mere seven points against Memphis.
Rajon Rondo scored only two points and failed to get an assist for the first time this season. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope remained cold. Josh Hart simply isn't Josh Hart these days. Mike Muscala has yet to make an impact since being acquired from the Clippers.
It's surprising to see what's happened to the Lakers' defense, a top-10 unit earlier this season.
They allowed 42 points in the first quarter against New Orleans and 34 in the first quarter vs. the Grizzlies, who happen to be the NBA's lowest-scoring team.
James, after supplying a triple-double against Memphis, didn't want to hear about any Lakers possibly affected by the pressure of pursuing a playoff spot.
“At this point, if you are still allowing distractions to affect you how the way you play, then this is the wrong franchise to be a part of,” he said firmly to reporters.
James' frustration is understandable.
He hasn't missed the playoffs since 2005, his second year in the league. For context, the Lakers' starting lineup that year was Chucky Atkins, Chris Mihm, Caron Butler, Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom. That was a long time ago.
These days, the younger Lakers aren't the problem.
Brandon Ingram is averaging 25 points over the last five games while shooting 54.5% from three-point range and thriving with his mid-range shot and drives to the basket. He's also getting to the line with ease, not to mention actually making the free throws.
Similarly, Kyle Kuzma is averaging 19 points over the last five games. He hasn't been as sharp from long distance, but it's inaccurate to say the Lakers are losing games because of their youth.
It's the veterans on one-year deals who need to set the tone the rest of the way: Rondo, Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee, etc.
It's still fixable. The Lakers have winnable games Wednesday against New Orleans at Staples Center and Saturday in Phoenix.
But if the Lakers aren't careful, they'll miss playoffs for the sixth consecutive time. April 9th would be their final game.
Nobody on the team, especially James in his first Lakers season, wants that to be the new reality.