Back at .500 at 16-16 following a 108-88 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James made it sound like he knows as much about his team’s potential now as he did when it was 0-0 to start the season.
“We don’t know,” James said. “We have no idea what this team can be.”
After seeing his game-high 34 points go to waste — his eighth 30-point performance in L.A.’s past 12 games — the 19-year veteran rattled off the setbacks the Lakers have suffered.
There were the dozen games he missed. The injuries that sidelined Trevor Ariza for the first 30 games and have kept Kendrick Nunn out of the lineup completely thus far. Throw in Anthony Davis‘ MCL sprain that is expected to cause him to miss at least a month and the four Lakers, and head coach Frank Vogel, missing because of health and safety protocols and it didn’t paint a pretty picture for one of the presumptive favorites coming into the season.
“So how can we really fully assess what we have when we haven’t been whole? I can’t remember the last time we played the same starting lineup and had the same rotation coming off the bench,” James said. “It’s been a long time. So, it’s hard to assess that.”
Indeed, L.A. trotted out its 17th different starting lineup of the season against the Suns, which is the most in the league. Meaning, on average, the Lakers haven’t managed to go more than two games straight this year before needing to change things up.
The Lakers built an early 10-point lead against the Suns (25-5), who moved past the Golden State Warriors for the best record in the NBA with the win, but lost control in the second half when Phoenix outscored L.A. 31-21 in the third and went up by as many as 22 in the fourth.
“Obviously, they are at full strength and we’re not, so it’s hard to see where we’re at as a team,” James said.
James himself appeared to avoid serious injury when he came down on the right foot of the Suns’ Jae Crowder in the third quarter. He remained in the game but looked hobbled by his left ankle the rest of the way.
“Yeah, I’ll be ready for next game,” James said.
David Fizdale, filling in as head coach while Vogel is in protocols, lauded the Suns’ play but added they have had the good fortune that the Lakers have lacked.
“They’ve had a lot of continuity and they’ve been very lucky,” Fizdale said. “That’s lucky to be healthy. … So yeah, that continuity is a big deal, and I just really feel like under our circumstances, the guys’ attitude and how they’ve been approaching it has been fantastic. To me, that makes it easy to believe that we’re going to be OK.”
Fizdale, who was an assistant with the Miami Heat when James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh & Co. led them to four straight NBA Finals and two championships, said the 36-year-old James will continue to forge ahead through the adversity.
“The one thing about LeBron, and I don’t like speaking for him, but he is not going to get wrapped up in that [negative] stuff, and neither are we,” Fizdale said. “Bron is looking at all of this as just the new challenge that is in front of him. After all of these years, he just doesn’t get rattled with any of it. He is not a blamer, he is not a complainer, he is not finger pointing. He is going to figure out solutions.”
James has already dubbed this season the biggest challenge of his career and said the Lakers would need to become comfortable being uncomfortable in order to grow through their challenges.
His new running mate Russell Westbrook, whose 22 points and five assists were marred by seven turnovers against the Suns, seemed confident that L.A. will be better off for what it has already gone through.
“I’m very optimistic,” Westbrook said. “We’ve been through so much as a team already and still going through it as a unit. And the best part about, for me, just, thus far, all of the ups and downs. That’s an NBA season. The most important part is that we stay together. Never divide. Never panic. Never succumb to what the people on the outside of our team are saying. Just make sure that we stay close-knit and find ways to be able to stick together through whatever it is.”
It’s trying times for the Lakers. Talen Horton-Tucker went 1-for-13 after missing three games because of COVID-19, and James said it was “great to get another body back” no matter what the shooting percentage.
Yet there are still 50 games left in the regular season. Plenty of time to find a rhythm, so long as the Lakers don’t let go of the rope.
“Obviously this has been Bron’s deal,” Fizdale said. “Guys look to Bron to be a leader, but he and Frank have been nothing short of spectacular from the standpoint of preaching patience but also holding people accountable. It’s easy to say be patient and just gloss over crap. And act like things are just all great. But it’s not, and they don’t act like that. They’re calling people out. We’re addressing the things we need to clean up, and those two are really spearheading that.”