On Sunday, the Los Angeles Lakers fell to the bottom of the Western Conference with a 49-point loss that went down as the worst single game in franchise history.
On Monday morning, the Lakers making a playoff push is an altogether delusional thought. Though LA may technically be only 5.5 games back of the eight-seed in the Western Conference, the Lakers are 16 games below .500 with nine of the next 11 games coming on the road.
This is not to say that Luke Walton has failed. He's dealing with 19, 20, 21 and 22-year-olds. Fighting through inconsistency is part of the process. Add injuries to the mix, and the Lakers' youth combined with mixing lineups help explain the losses. LA is playing better basketball and has a brighter future than it did a season ago or two seasons ago. The team is on an upward trajectory, and Walton has a great deal to do with that.
In particular, 20-year-old D'Angelo Russell has struggled with both inconsistency and injuries. On the eve of the worst defeat in franchise history, the Lakers announced that Russell will miss one to two weeks with an MCL sprain in his right knee to go along with a calf strain and a bone bruise.
If he misses the full two weeks and there is no push to rush the kid back—and there shouldn't be any—Russell would return on Monday, Feb. 6 in New York. That would amount to seven games missed, which would be an improvement on the 11 games he missed earlier in the season after taking a PRP injection in the opposite knee. In all, Russell has missed most or all of 15 games due to injuries thus far, and sitting out another five games would add up to the Lakers' young starting point guard missing a quarter of his second NBA season.
That's not a recipe for success.
So What's Next?
The Lakers are currently the third worst team in the NBA and on pace to win 27 games. Barring a miracle, the Brooklyn Nets are going to finish with the worst record in the NBA. The Lakers are a couple wins better than the Heat, but Miami has won three games in a row.
A year ago, the Lakers finished with the second worst record in the NBA, and the Lakers have Brandon Ingram to show for it. Yes, this is familiar territory. The Lakers' fan base should be experiencing a strong, sickening feeling of déjà vu.
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While not just yet, it's nearly time for "Team Tank."
Due to the infamous Steve Nash trade, the Los Angeles Lakers benefit from losing games because only a top three draft position will allow the Lakers to keep their 2017 NBA Draft pick. Otherwise, the pick goes to the Philadelphia 76ers.
However, even if the Lakers finish with the second or third worst record in the NBA, they still have about a coin flip of a chance of losing their pick. If LA finishes with the second worst record, they have a 55.8 percent chance of keeping the pick in the lottery. If the Lakers finish with the third worst record, they have a 46.9 percent chance of keeping their pick.
Those aren't great odds, which is why coaches and players generally aren't instructed to lose games, along with the whole morality of competing to lose games.
It's an awkward position for fans to actively root against wins, but these are the troubled waters the Lakers' ship is approaching. It's a familiar journey. Following the All-Star break in mid-February, the passion behind "Team Tank" comes to the forefront.
Outside of beating the Celtics and the Clippers, a significant segment of fans celebrate losses. Secretly, even the Lakers' front office will probably be celebrating defeats. Actually, that's probably not entirely accurate.
Lakers co-owner and vice-president Jim Buss, who oversees basketball operations, made a well-known promise to his family a few years ago that the Lakers would be competing by the end of the current season. Otherwise, he would step down from his role. And so, even if the Lakers keep their draft pick, Buss may not be the person making the selection by the summer.
Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who was publicly critical of Buss in the past, recently attended a game and sat next to Lakers president Jeanie Buss. Jeanie has been public about holding her brother Jim accountable to the timeline. Johnson's appearance with Jeanie immediately sparked rumors, as Johnson is part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and former minority owner of the Lakers. With every loss, those rumors regarding the future of the franchise will only grow, but the summer could provide major changes in the Lakers' front office.
With only 34 games remaining, the conclusion of the 2016-17 season is setting up as yet another odd trip that feels frighteningly far too familiar.