The young, injured Lakers are about to show what they’re made of
It didn't take long for the shine to rub off of the young Los Angeles Lakers — and after a lackluster double-digit loss to the Golden State Warriors on Friday night, the questions are starting to pile up.
The culprit for the Lakers' recent woes is easy to pinpoint. Injuries to D'Angelo Russell (knee), Julius Randle (hip) and Nick Young (sprained toe) set this team up for failure over the past week or so, and the schedule acted as an accomplice. In the past five games, the Lakers have lost to the Spurs, Bulls, Warriors, and Warriors again, sandwiching a two-point win against the Thunder in the middle of that awful stretch.
Unfortunately for Los Angeles, the news doesn't get any better over the coming week. While Young is set to return on Sunday against the Atlanta Hawks — another game the Lakers will likely lose, evening the season series after a surprising win earlier this month — Randle's status is uncertain, and Russell is two weeks away after receiving an injection in his knee to spur his body's own healing process.
The schedule remains difficult as well. After hosting the Hawks, Luke Walton's team hits the road for four straight games, including three against potential playoff teams in the Bulls, Raptors and Grizzlies. Only a Tuesday tilt with the Pelicans offers any respite for the Lakers, and even New Orleans has looked like a new team in recent weeks.
Following that road trip, Los Angeles will face the Jazz at Staples Center then head to Houston to take on the Rockets. Conceivably, the Lakers could lose all seven of those games, stretching their current streak to nine consecutive losses and 11 in the past 12 games.
Or they can show the world that this isn't the same Los Angeles team we've grown accustomed to over the past several seasons.
Yes, the injuries are a problem. Yes, this team remains a work in progress, built on the shaky foundation that is a youth movement. And yes, the schedule is difficult.
Yet no one is asking the Lakers to run the table — or even emerge with a winning record over the next two weeks. Showing a little bit of fight and picking off a win here or there along the way would go wonders toward boosting the morale of an inexperienced team that must avoid spiraling in on itself.
If the Lakers really are the NBA's darlings — the team we saw over the first few weeks of the season — they'll find a way to best Anthony Davis and the Pelicans next week. Despite New Orleans' recent upward trajectory, the Pelicans remain one of the association's worst offenses, and their defense has come back to earth over the past week as well. Knocking off New Orleans would go a long way toward stanching the bleeding in Los Angeles.
Besting Toronto will be tough, of course. But beyond the Raptors, neither the Bulls nor the Grizzlies are unstoppable behemoths. In fact, both teams are overachieving this season, and the Lakers could be just the squad to dish up a little taste of regression on the road, assuming Randle is back by next weekend.
That's really all Los Angeles needs: Sprinkle a couple of wins into the turd sandwich that is the upcoming schedule, and the Lakers will be just fine. 10-13 is awfully different from 8-15, after all, especially when the latter means answering question after question from the media about how everything went so wrong.
For a young team, that subtle difference in attitude can make all the difference. It's crucial that the young Lakers want to come to work every day. They need to enjoy putting in the effort that will help them reach their potential. If the weight of early-season expectations becomes too much to bear, there will be long-term repercussions.
So the choice belongs to Los Angeles. This young, injured team can fold under the pressure, patting themselves on the back for a fast start and taking solace in the baby steps forward they'll take for the rest of the season. Or they can scrap, and claw, and fight — like veterans, regardless of their age or experience — and show that those who wear purple and gold are no longer pushovers. They can show this is a team that will struggle through the darkness, knowing the future grows ever brighter.
And there is light at the end of the tunnel. On the other side of this stretch, the Lakers face the Suns, Knicks, Kings, Nets and 76ers in consecutive, winnable games. If everyone is healthy at that point, the Lakers will be in solid position to put together a nice little run before the holidays, when the schedule evens out with games against title contenders and lottery locks alike.
In the end, the Lakers have nothing to lose over the next couple of weeks. They're expected to fail, as young teams do. Should they punch back with their backs against the wall, however, this team truly will have taken the next step forward.
Luke Walton expects Nick Young to play tomorrow. Julius Randle participated in part of today's practice.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) November 26, 2016
D'Angelo Russell: “I definitely don’t want to force anything back. I feel like I’ve gotta be 100% perfect before I step back on the floor.”
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) November 26, 2016