LOS ANGELES — The contrast could not have been more stark.
On one side of the court, decked in black, were the Clippers, a team of role players — not one former All-Star among their active roster, not to mention no All-NBA nods, no MVP trophies or other impressive hardware. What they are is young, hungry, gritty, buying into the team identity and each other.
“I’ve been on, now, a couple of teams, and this is the only team where, from top to bottom, everyone wants everyone to succeed,” said Isaiah Hartenstein, who had a dozen points off the bench for the Clippers Thursday. “I think that’s special with this team.”
On the other side of the court, in their legendary gold, were the Lakers. A roster with four future Hall of Famers and more individual accolades than any team in the league — playing like individuals.
“My role and what I’m doing has changed every single night,” Russell Westbrook said after the latest Laker loss, in what came off as a thinly-veiled shot at coach Frank Vogel. “So I’m just trying to figure that out as I’m playing and to be able to benefit and help my team.”
“We’ve talked about everything,” Vogel said when asked about bringing Westbrook off the bench. When pressed if we could actually see it, Vogel echoed himself, “We’ve talked about everything.”
Talk is cheap. Sixty-two games into the season, the Lakers are still figuring out their roles (let alone accepting them) and seem to be playing different styles night to night. This is a team trying to find a team identity. The result is ugly basketball — the Lakers have dropped 7-of-8 overall and are 0-3 since the All-Star break, having lost those last three by a total of 53 points. They play like a team whose spirit has been broken.
Talk is cheap, but it’s all the Lakers have right now. They keep saying they will fight through this latest slump even as the evidence piles up on the court to suggest otherwise.
“I’m not a quitter. It’s not in my genes,” Westbrook said. “I don’t quit, regardless of what the hell is going on. I’m going to fight to the end, and if it don’t work, that’s cool, too. I can live with the results. But I’m never going to give up or give in because of a little struggle that’s happening this time of the year.”
“There’s no quit in us. We will continue to persist,” Vogel said. “We’re trying to adjust and shift and find ways to win with Anthony [Davis] out. We haven’t found that yet. But it’s not something that we can’t do. We just haven’t found it yet.”
What are they trying to find? What is that identity?
“With a Frank Vogel team, you obviously start with defending and it starts with the point of attack, so the point guard position,” LeBron said (Westbrook starts at the one, at that point of attack). “And then obviously this league is a huge pick and roll league, so you know [the] bigs being able to help the guards out, protect the guards, the guards getting back in front of the ball and then the bigs getting back to be big-on-big so we can also rebound the ball when the shots go up.
“Obviously, it’s been challenging for us this year defensively and we had a lot of breakdowns, we lost a lot of games because our defense has broken down but also, it’s because of our offense at times too. Your offense can help your defense and when you are taking bad shots or you’re turning the ball over, or you take a good shot but it’s a long rebound and you’re not getting floor balance and you’re not getting back that can affect your defense as well.”
The Lakers have drifted away from that defensive identity that won them a title in the bubble (they are 17th in the league in defense this season). Drifted is the wrong word, they have deliberately steered the roster away from putting younger, role-playing shooters and defenders around LeBron and Davis, and they went for a third star in Westbrook who was never a natural fit. The Lakers haven’t developed Talen Horton-Tucker and got unlucky with Kendrick Nunn‘s injury lasting this long, but the Lakers made a conscious decision to sign a lot of aging veterans to one-year minimum contracts. They got what they paid for. This is not a good defensive team, offensively not a good shooting team, and they only play with force on occasion.
The Lakers are saying all the right things because that’s what veterans do, but watch them play and — even picturing Davis back in the lineup — it’s fair to question if they get out of the play-in tournament. (There is a legitimate chance the Lakers could face these Clippers in a winner-gets-in second round of the play-in.) Even if the Lakers could pull it together and win a couple of play-in games, the reward would be a deep, balanced, talented Suns team on a mission.
A major shakeup is coming to Los Angeles this offseason. Westbrook and the Lakers are both ready to go their separate ways. Nobody around the league expects Frank Vogel to be back at the helm. The Lakers have backed themselves into a financial corner in terms of big moves. Still, changes are coming.
Whether those changes are upgrades depends in large part on something the Lakers have not done this year — buy-in and commit to a team identity.