Lakers stumble through season of high expectations | NBA

By GREG BEACHAM – AP Sportswriter

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Los Angeles Lakers just aren’t getting it together and now their time is almost up.

From Anthony Davis’ injuries and Russell Westbrook’s underplaying to LeBron James’ inability to carry them all, virtually nothing has gone well this season for the franchise, which last fall assembled a momentous roster of veterans to add another hunt ring.

After their 117-110 loss to the Spurs on Monday night, the Lakers are 28-36 in ninth place in the Western Conference, just three games out of 11. A group expected to be fighting for a title is much closer to missing the 10-team playoffs.

They haven’t given up hope in Hollywood: James and coach Frank Vogel both insist Davis still has time to recover, Westbrook finds his game, and the Lakers supporting cast are reclaiming their collective prime.

“We still have games to play,” James said last week after the Lakers blew a late lead and lost at home to Dallas. “Until you stomp me out, cut off my head, bury me 12 feet underground, then I have a chance. So that is my trust.”

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But every disheartening loss and injury underscores the likelihood that the Lakers’ dreams of an 18th title are deeply unrealistic. A four-member roster on the NBA’s 75th anniversary team has gone 7-17 as of Jan. 7.

No one knows exactly who to blame for this mix of mediocrity — not even the Lakers’ front office, which has yet to blame Vogel for the struggles by firing him.

But past Lakers greats are embarrassed at the current state of the franchise, with glory days worthy of an HBO series. “Winning Time,” the dramatization of LA’s lively championship teams in the 1980s, aired this past weekend.

James Worthy, a star with those Showtime Lakers, recently referred to the current team as “The Walking Dead” on his own television network. Shaquille O’Neal chastised the Lakers for their lack of visible passion during another loss last week – and boasted that he would not have accepted the current situation.

“I’m losing to the Clippers, someone’s getting beat up in the locker room tonight,” Shaq said.

The final two games encapsulate the frustration and inconsistency that have characterized LA’s season. James led the Lakers to a massive 56-point performance last Saturday in a 124-116 win over powerhouse Golden State, which stands for the third-biggest of his 19-year NBA career — but then he sat the loss down to the 12th-ranked San from Antonio with knee pain.

The Lakers lost to the Spurs without their two key players on the court, and they did so on the two-month anniversary of their last straight win.

“I feel like every time we get some momentum, something happens,” Westbrook said, shaking his head. “It was like that. When we play a good game, something always happens (shortly after). But that’s the way it is with us. We need to continue to disconnect and find ways to feed each other back because some of this is out of our hands and health is the most important thing for all of us.”

Westbrook is right: Of all the Lakers’ risky hiring decisions over the past 16 months, relying on Davis to stay sane was the biggest failure.

The star forward’s lanky frame and awkward movement never allowed him to be long-lived, but Davis has been sidelined by multiple ailments over the past two seasons, undercutting anything the Lakers want.

After missing half of the Lakers’ 2020-21 regular season through injury and then injuring himself again in the playoffs, Davis missed 17 more games this season with a sprained knee. He walked out again with a sprained foot before the All-Star break, and there’s a chance he won’t come back at all this season.

While Davis missed 27 of the Lakers’ 64 games, James was also less reliable than usual, missing 18 games. They played just 27 games together last season and played just 20 games alongside Westbrook this year — just five since December 17.

The Lakers have already fielded 32 starting line-ups, both because of their stars’ injuries and their nondescript supporting cast. They currently start with Austin Reaves, an undrafted rookie who wasn’t expected to play much.

“It changes a lot of things when you bring out some of your key guys,” said Westbrook, whose first year with his hometown team was mostly a nightmare. “We’ve got to stick to that and hopefully the guys can step in and make that change.”

The 2017 NBA MVP shoots poorly and struggles to fit alongside James. Westbrook’s 18.1 points per game is his lowest since 2009-10, as is his 15.9 shots per game, but that attempt at playing team ball doesn’t translate into wins.

Just as Pau Gasol was the target of frustrating Lakers fans with that level of unmet expectations last season in 2013, Westbrook is the primary scapegoat in their downtown arena. He has even stopped bringing his family to home games because of the boos and profanity directed at him.

“It’s just super unfortunate and it’s super upsetting to me,” Westbrook said. “The disgrace of my name, the disgrace of my character, the disgrace of who I am as a person, does not justify me. I haven’t harmed anyone. I haven’t hurt anyone. I’ve done nothing but play basketball in ways they might not like.”

The only thing that suggests the Lakers could still make something of this miserable season is the name at the top of the list. Despite appearing to be dealing with his knee pain on the track, James, 37, has only missed the playoffs once since 2005 and when he’s healthy, he’s still near the peak of his impressive talent.

“Even though they have problems, they will make it,” said Clippers coach Tyronn Lue. “I have no doubt about that. I’ve seen Bron in difficult situations before. I always saw him coming out the top.

“I know a lot of people rule out the Lakers, but they’re still a good team,” added Lue. “The guys have been in and out all year and it’s tough. in game or whatever, I guarantee (#1 seed) they don’t want to see it. You are not out of the game.”

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