EL SEGUNDO — When did the Lakers know their season was headed for the rocks? Depends on who you ask.
Anthony Davis and Stanley Johnson said they kept believing until the end, until they were eliminated on April 5th in Phoenix. When asked about it, Johnson retorted: “Would you believe if you had LeBron and Russ and AD in the locker room with you?”
But some other veterans felt the change early. Looking back, Wayne Ellington felt a lot of wind at their backs die down after the December and January struggles with injuries and COVID-19: “We just declined pretty quickly. We were just never able to catch a stride.”
While definitive answers were elusive for the Lakers, who were reflective after a 33-49 season that disappointed all involved, dividing lines among role players emerged after the campaign, most readily between the fresh faces who were thrust into the playing rotation and the veterans who were pulled out of it.
The differences in perspective help illuminate tensions between coaches and veterans, between youth and experience, between the short-term and long view that helped fracture a season that was already crumbling mid-year. The Lakers had a lot of colorful metaphors for a campaign gone sour: Kent Bazemore said instead of all being in the same boat, “some guys had speed boats, some had pontoons, we’re all kind of all over the place.”
But Dwight Howard hit upon something when he described the Lakers’ challenges as trying to surmount a wall: “No matter how hard we worked, no matter what we did in practice, no matter individually how long we stayed in the gym, how many film sessions we had, all the talks and stuff we had, it just felt like we could not get over that wall.”
General manager Rob Pelinka left a lot of room for interpretation when describing the failures of the players he assembled last summer, stating simply, “I think our roster did not work.” But several veterans seemed to believe the Lakers, as they were built last summer, could have worked if given enough runway.
During the season, Bazemore was a mainline of positivity, celebrating from the bench and trying to pick up the team spirit in huddles. At one point, Coach Frank Vogel said that Bazemore had been “a 10 out of 10 with his attitude and his character and has really shown in light of a difficult circumstance where guys could go sideways or have a dark mindset.”
But in his exit interview, Bazemore was more than happy to open up about his dissatisfaction with being benched, as well as other coaching decisions he disagreed with. He thought the Lakers’ lineups in key situations lacked overall IQ – the implication being that if veterans were playing, they might have won several of the close games they lost. He also criticized the quick decisions to pull players from lineups (Bazemore started the first 13 games of the season but only started once for the rest of the year).
“Depth doesn’t necessarily mean, ‘Oh, he’s missed 10 our of his last 12 shots, let’s take him out and put this guy in and start him tonight,’” Bazemore said. “That’s not what depth is. Guys get a rhythm throughout the season, it’s a long year. It’s ebbs and flows.”
Another veteran who didn’t see the floor much, Wayne Ellington, hit upon similar themes. While he didn’t mention Vogel’s 41 different starting lineups specifically, he said that constant change in the rotation helped kill the team’s flagging on-court chemistry in the middle of the season.
“I think you just kind of felt it,” he said. “Once COVID hit, once different guys got brought in, playing in front of guys who had been here, the mix-and-match of just throwing guys in there to see what stuck, I think that’s when I kinda felt the connection of the group leave.”
The coaching counterpoint was that the veterans the Lakers originally signed weren’t performing. Bazemore struggled to space at the level envisioned (32.4%) and never picked up the point-of-attack defense in Vogel’s system. Ellington was a reasonably steady 3-point shooter for the year (38.9%) but offered little else. As Vogel said in his last pregame press conference of the year: “No one earned (a starting role) on a regular basis.” A dozen Lakers recorded at least 11 starts this season.
Vogel implied through starting latecomers like Avery Bradley, Stanley Johnson and Wenyen Gabriel that the roster assembled over the summer had huge flaws. Players like Bazemore and Trevor Ariza who were once assumed to take on huge roles, in the eyes of coaches, weren’t up to the task. Players like Johnson seemed to show an energy and aptitude toward the defensive roles coaches asked of them.
Perhaps Johnson, who was fighting uphill all season to stay in the NBA, wasn’t cynical enough to stop believing until the end. Even past the end, Johnson said, he would have liked to have seen what the Lakers, who didn’t win consecutive games for three months, could have done in a seven-game series.
“Obviously it’s crazy for me to believe that now, but all the way up until I knew we couldn’t make the playoffs,” he said. “Obviously you gotta believe at that point in time. But I think if we had gotten in and gotten an opportunity, we would have played well.
Added Johnson: “Did we? No. Did we deserve to get in? No. We just didn’t play well.”
The frenetic way Vogel flipped through different lineups and groups, beyond injuries, may have also tied into the pressure he was feeling to perform from the start of the season. By mid-January, reports surfaced that Vogel could be fired mid-season. In the championship season, Vogel used just 12 different starting lineups the entire year. But in addition to a number of games where he was missing bodies, he simply seemed to be searching for game-by-game solutions.
Ellington thought that the pressure to win nightly started to get to the team.
“I think it seeped in naturally,” he said. “There’s so much coverage of our team this year – the good, the bad and the ugly – I think it definitely played its part in not really allowing us of being who we were capable of being. That pressure night-in night-out of what’s happening tonight instead of keeping that big picture mindset kind of closed in on us.”
Somewhere in the middle of these lines was D.J. Augustin, a veteran but also a late-comer, a former teammate of Russell Westbrook but also a former player for Frank Vogel. In the wake of the divide that became clear between those two personalities in exit interviews, Augustin played Switzerland: He called Vogel’s firing “a big loss for our organization and guys that knew him,” but also said, “Russ is my guy.”
Signed just a month-and-a-half before the season ended, Augustin said these distinct camps within the locker room didn’t affect off-court chemistry, calling Bazemore and Ellington two of his favorite teammates.
“Their opportunities were limited here, but they came with a great attitude every day,” he said. “They picked up their teammates every day, during games, during practice. That’s hard to do. A lot of fans don’t know how hard it is to do that.”
Ultimately, it’s difficult to register whether the fractures caused some of the issues that sped up the Lakers’ demise this season, or if they simply were a result of them. The biggest factor, Ellington said, was how the Lakers played on the court: lacking the cohesion that the best teams always find.
“I’ll just say from a team standpoint, it was a weird season, man,” he said. “It was awkward in terms of our connection on the floor.”